Keeping Research Seminars Lively and Engaging

The Problem: All too often, research seminars fail to live up to their potential for lively, intellectually engaging discussions about exciting research projects. Instead, one or two participants drone on and on about an article that half of the people at the table haven't read. This leads to what has been called "SemiNarcolepsy": a sleepy, mostly unproductive use of time.

Richard Yuretich's Solution: By applying active learning methodologies in graduate-level appropriate ways, all of the seminar participants can be engaged in a discussion about the day's topic.

Jump down to: Guiding Principles * Method * Sample Articles and Discussion Questions

Video of Richard describing how he makes seminars interactive and engaging:

Guiding Principles

In general, I want to
  • Divide responsibilities amongst seminar participants.
  • Encourage co-operative learning.
  • Keep participants engaged.
  • Have a mechanism for reporting back.


To accomplish these goals, I randomly assign students to groups and give each group an assignment. For instance: the topic of the day is a journal article, which students will have read prior to class. Seminar participants are divided into groups of three or four. Each group is assigned a section of the paper, a key figure, or a question to discuss and answer. The group summarizes the key points of their answer on a large (2'x3') post-it. A representative of each group then reports to the class. If necessary, I ask probing questions to draw out further information from the person reporting, making sure they answer the question fully. The discussion questions are on the level of extracting understanding of the article and of the authors' interpretations. The group reports lead into deeper discussion of the article - assumptions, methodology, conclusions, and further questions.

Example 1

Journal article: Rieu, R., Allen, P.A., Plotze, M., and Pettke, T., 2007. Climatic cycles during a Neoproterozoic "snowball" glacial epoch. Geology, v. 35, n. 4, p. 299-302.

Discussion questions:

  • What are the key points of the introduction and figure 1?
  • What are the key points of the sections on bulk mineralogy, results, and figure 2?
  • What are the key points of the sections on variations in chemical weathering, implications, and figure 3?

Example 2

Journal article: Hilley, G.E. and Arrowsmith, J.R., 2008. Geomorphic response to uplift along the Dragon's Back pressure ridge, Carrizo Plain, California. Geology, v. 36, n. 5, p. 367-370.

Discussion questions:

  • What is the underlying research problem or question?
  • What is the importance of the geology of this area?
  • What is the significance of ALSM and DEM?
  • What are the significant outcomes of this investigation?