A seminar is a small group discussion among students whereas a lecture is a large group presentation where the professor does all the talking.
In seminars the professor facilitates discussion whereas in lectures the professor does all the talking with very little input from students.
This article outlines 17 key differences. It is split into two sections:
Let’s get started with key points about what makes a Seminar unique!
Below are some scholarly definitions of the terms ‘Seminar’ and ‘Lecture’. I’ve also paraphrased those
1. Definition of a Seminar
Here’s two scholarly definitions of a seminar:
- Race (2005, p. 141) defines a seminar as follows: “… in seminars, learners themselves contribute most of the content, for example, by preparing to talk as individuals or small groups about pre-allocated topics, then open the topics up for discussion.”
- Becker and Denicolo (2012, p. 33) define a seminar as “a coming together of a group of students (usually between 6 and 16 of them) to discuss one aspect of a course or module, led by one (or occasionally two) tutors.”
So, what does that mean?
A seminar is a small group session where you get the chance to discuss the content you have been assigned to learn for the week.
They usually occur after lectures so you can brainstorm and reflect on the topic presented in the lecture.
2. Definition of a Lecture
Here’s two scholarly definitions of a lecture:
- Exley and Dennick (2009, p. 1) characterize a lecture as a speech “presented to hundreds of students in a lecture theatre” which is considered “the standard model of academic teaching.” The explain that the lecture is derived “from the Latin lectare meaning ‘to read aloud’.”
- Brown and Race (2003, p. 7) present several pages of humorous explanations of a ‘lecture’ at the outset of their book Lecturing: A Practical Guide. One of the more ‘practical’ definitions that emerged was: “Lecturing is engaging with a large number of people simultaneously to convey such things as information, enthusiasm, knowledge to generate interest among the audience.”
Okay, and what does this mean?
A lecture is a large group session where the teacher is the central discussant. Usually, the teacher talks and the students listen.
I’ll sum this up with one more definition, more humorous than the last, from Brown and Race’s list of definitions mentioned above: a lecture is “a talk by someone barely awake to others profoundly asleep.”
Now let’s move on to a discussion of several elements of seminars and lectures.
What to Expect in Seminars
Points 12 – 19 are all about what to expect in Lectures.
1. Small Classes
In your seminars, you will be in a small group.
In fact, seminar classes are usually (but not always) smaller than high school classes.
You wouldn’t expect more than about 15 people in a seminar.
But, I’ve done seminars with up to 45 students, so this is not a hard-and-fast rule. It depends how cheap your university is and whether they’re willing to fork out the money for additional tutors.
Seminars are designed to be discussions. A lecture involves the teacher talking (droning) on and on, a lecture may have the teacher barely talk.
Usually, the teacher gives an introduction and sets out the terms of the discussion. They may set a question or a task. Then, they let the students share their ideas together.
The teacher may prompt students to share their ideas, but by and large the teacher usually tries not to impose themselves too much on the students. It’s the students’ turn to talk, chat, debate or sometimes argue.
3. Group Work
Seminars involve a lot of group work.
When the students are set a task, they’ll often work in groups.
Sometimes this may be several small groups. The students will often be split into groups of 2 – 5 and asked to share their ideas on the topic of the day.
Then, the small groups report their findings to the whole seminar. There may be a group representative assigned the task to talk. They might tell the whole class all about what the group discussed and what conclusions they came to in their discussion.
Other times, the whole class will communicate as one whole group. They may sit in a circle and the teacher will pose a stimulus question.
Then, ideally students will start sharing their thoughts and building a discussion together.
But in reality, there’s a lot of awkward silence.
4. Self-Directed Learning
If you’ve not experienced a seminar before, you might be surprised that the teacher leaves you alone quite a bit.
That’s because at university level you’re supposed to be able to direct your own learning.
The question the teacher asked may lead you to discuss one thing after another until your group’s gone down a deep rabbit hole.
Then, when the groups come together at the end of the seminar to share what they each discussed, you’ll find each group may have gone on completely different tangents.
And usually, that’s okay. Seminars are all about exploring topics in detail. You’re supposed to think critically, explore topics from multiple angles, and explore many perspectives.
Your teacher probably won’t be hovering over your shoulder too much.
5. You’ll often Discuss Readings
It’s very typical for a teacher to set a “weekly reading” for you to complete before you come to the seminar.
The weekly reading is usually either a journal article or a textbook chapter.
If you’re studying literature, it may be a literary text.
Then, when you come to class, the stimulus questions the teacher sets for your groups to discuss will likely revolve around the assigned readings.
That’s why it’s so important to actually do the assigned readings before you get to the seminar.
Furthermore, if your seminar follows a lecture, remember to attend the lecture as well.
I usually start my seminars for opening up discussion about what happened in the lecture. We talk about their thoughts on the lecture topic and share their questions.
Then, we’ll dive into the weekly reading and I’ll get the students to share their notes and thoughts on what the reading was all about and what it can teach us.
That’s pretty common – so if you’ve been set a weekly reading make sure you have it all read and you take notes on it before your seminar.
6. Pop Tests
Pop tests are quite common in seminars.
One reason professors use pop tests in seminars is to hold students accountable to the expectations placed upon them to engage in weekly independent studies.
To put it simply, professors test students to make sure they’ve done their homework.
If you don’t do the weekly readings before class, you won’t be able to contribute acceptably to class discussions.
If students can’t contribute to class discussions, seminars are basically pointless.
So, expect pop quizzes in your seminars to keep you on your toes.
7. Active Learning
I’ve provided this point here to highlight the contrast between lectures and seminars.
In lectures you sit still, observe and absorb a teacher’s presentation. In other words, you’re often considered a ‘passive’ learner in a lecture. You don’t have to actually contribute anything. All you need to do is listen and take notes.
In seminars you are expected to be an active learner. You feed your ideas into the whole class discussion in order for it to progress.
In fact, often students’ input will significantly impact their own peers’ opinions.
It might be your job in a seminar to change your peers’ minds.
You might also get given a lot of activities to complete that involve very active learning and investigation.
Here’s some examples of activities you might do in seminars:
- Think-Pair-Share activities
- Brainstorming with flip chart paper
- Preparation of presentations
- Lab experiments
8. You can ask your Teacher Questions
One of the best parts about seminars is that you get close access to your teacher.
Remember that question you had about how to complete the upcoming essay? Now’s your chance. Put your hand up and ask that question.
Did you struggle understanding something they mentioned in the lecture? Ask for clarification.
Were the readings too hard? Share your thoughts with your teacher. They might give you some advice and support.
I always get a few students coming up to me at the end of a lesson.
Common questions to ask in seminars include:
- Requesting extensions
- Seeking clarification on how to complete assessments
- Seeking top tips on how to improve your marks
- Personal advice or insights on topics
Your seminar might be your only chance to get close enough to your teacher to get those gems of advice that will push you to the top of class.
I recommend focussing on getting input about what your teacher’s preferences are for your assessments so you know which mistakes to avoid when it comes to submission date for that looming essay.
9. You’ll get to know your Teacher more Intimately
This is So. Important.
Getting to know your teacher helps you get top marks.
You’ll never get to know your teacher truly in your lectures. In lectures, your teacher is standing in front of between 40 and hundreds of people. You’re just a sea of faces.
In the seminar, you’ve got the chance to get to know what your teacher’s preferences, likes and dislikes are.
This will give you an advantage when it comes to writing your assessment tasks.
In a previous post, I’ve emphasized some things you’ll want to do to ensure your teacher’s on your side. This will help them have a positive view of you and make them want to give you good marks.
Here’s a summary of that post’s key points on how to get your professor on your side:
- Make sure your professor knows your name
- Make sure your professor knows your goals
- Speak up in class to support or challenge ideas in the readings
- Seek feedback
- Follow-up on previous conversations with your professor
If you want to read more on how to build a good relationship with your professor, feel free to read the full post.
What to Expect in Lectures
Points 12 – 19 are all about what to expect in Lectures.
1. Large Classes
The first and most obvious thing you’ll notice when you’re in a lecture is just how many students are in the room with you.
I generally have somewhere between 40 and 200 students in my lectures.
You’ll even notice that the other students in the lecture may be taking very different majors to you.
Often, a psychology student will take an education elective and end up in the same class as you.
Similarly, it’s often the case that students studying ‘soft sciences’ such as a literature degree may still need to take a few ‘hard sciences’ courses. This means you might have an actor or communications major in your Physics lecture!
There are many implications for this large class size. Below are a few of the main ones.
2. Teacher is the Center of Attention
Take a look around a lecture theater next time you’re in there.
Notice which direction all the seats are pointed?
They’re all pointing towards one spot: a stage at the front. It’ll probably have a projection board for the teacher to show some lecture slides.
But really, the center of attention is the teacher.
You sit. You listen. You take notes.
And the teacher talks.
The original intent of lectures was for professors who were experts on topics to pontificate about the topic.
They literally ‘lecture’ us. They stand there and tell us about what is true and what is, perhaps, less true.
This is very different to a seminar. While in the seminar you’re the center of attention, in the lecture you’re expected to sit quietly and watch.
3. You’ll be Learning by Listening
In a lecture, you don’t ‘actively learn’. Nope.
Instead, you learn by sitting there and absorbing information.
Sometimes you’ll be observing the teacher’s demonstration.
But usually they simply talk to you. They tell you stories, explain concepts and … well … they talk and talk and talk!
This means you’re going to have to develop some strategies for learning in this environment.
I have a whole post on how to take notes in lectures.
Here’s a summary of just a few of the key points in that post:
- Print out the lecture slides and read them before class
- Don’t bring any distractions like mobile phones
- Record the lecture on your phone
- Compare your notes with friends after class
- Type up your notes when you get home to reinforce the information in your mind
Look, I’m not going to lie.
Lectures aren’t the best learning environments. You can lose your attention pretty fast. And it can get boring at times.
But with the tips above you’ll be on track to doing a decent job of taking the notes you need to succeed in class.
4. You’re Absorbing new Information
Lectures are all about learning something new.
Seminars are all about consolidating information you have already learned.
In your lecture, it’s likely the first time you’ve ever heard this new information.
So come to your lecture ready to learn something new!
But, that means the learning style is totally different – and you need to do something different, too!
Learning by listening isn’t enough. You need to test the ideas, put them into action and try them out.
That means you should pick up all of that information you gathered from your class and do something with it.
Here’s three ways you can make sure you absorbed the information well:
- Try out the information you learned in real life. If you learned something you can apply in your life, have a go! It will help consolidate your knowledge.
- Come up with discussion points for your Seminar. If there’s something interesting that you learned that you want to talk about and flesh out some more, write it down so you can chat about it in the seminar.
Lectures usually come before seminars in your week for this very purpose. You learn the new information in the lecture then apply it in the seminar.
5. The Lecturer gives away Tips about the Exams
Every one of my friends do this. And so do I.
In fact, I’ll often say something like “Write this down…” or “Listen to this tip…” to make sure my students know a little nugget of information is really important.
Here’s two reasons we give away exam tips in lectures:
- To give you an incentive to come to the lecture.
- To make sure you keep paying attention throughout the whole lecture.
But even if your lecturer doesn’t mean to give away tips about the exam, they’ll leave little breadcrumbs that are very important.
Think about it: your teacher is the person who writes the exam.
They’re also the person who gives the lecture.
Therefore, they’re going to be teaching the same content as they put in the exams.
So pay close attention and take detailed notes in lectures. Use those notes when you’re studying for exams, because they’ll be the most relevant exam information you will find.
6. Question time is usually Saved for the End
In a lecture you’ll get to ask questions, but it’s very different to a seminar.
In seminars you spend the whole time chatting away. You’ll be able to have free flowing discussions with your teacher.
In fact, your conversations in seminars will often be directed by you and your peers. One person will ask a question, then that will lead to a different conversation for the next 15 minutes. It might end up being a conversation the teacher never planned for!
Lectures are much more structured.
The teacher will follow a set routine, usually structured around lecture slides projected onto the screen.
That doesn’t mean you don’t get to ask questions.
Usually your teacher will open the floor for questions right at the end and you can ask for clarification on any points you need.
People often feel really shy about asking questions in lectures.
Let me reassure you – if you have that question, other people in the class probably will, too.
Furthermore, your lecturer will really appreciate that you asked a question. As I’ve said before, it’s important to have a good relationship with your teacher. If you want to impress your lecturer and show them you’re a top student, feel free to ask questions at the end!
7. You get to listen to Experts
Traditionally lecturers are employed as they’re experts on the topics they’re teaching.
They do a lot of research into the topics they teach. In fact, most professors will spend a few days a week in labs or out conducting research into your topics.
That means you’ll get the most up to date, detailed (and hopefully interesting) information on the topic you’re there to learn about.
Your teacher might also seek out other experts to come to teach to you.
One of my specialties is learning theories. Often, I’ll get contacted by colleagues asking me to give lectures to their students on learning theories.
Similarly, I’ll often ask those teachers to come to talk to my students about their areas of specialty. I’m not an expert on literacy. So, I might ask my friend Sally who’s a great literacy expert to talk to my students about that topic.
In other words, you should get an opportunity in lectures to hear from some of the top minds in your region on all the various topics in your course.
Summary: Differences between Seminars and Lectures
Seminars and Lectures are both central elements of university level learning.
But they have different purposes.
Lectures are for learning new information, Seminars are for consolidating and exploring the information you learned in the lectures.
Below is one last fly-by summary of the key elements of lectures and seminars:
- A seminar is a small group session where you get the chance to discuss the content you have been assigned to learn for the week.
- A lecture is a large group session where the teacher is the central discussant.
What to Expect in Seminars:
- Small Classes
- Group Work
- Self-Directed Learning
- Discussion of your Readings
- Pop Tests
- Active Learning
- Opportunities to ask your Teacher Questions
- Getting to know your Teacher more Intimately
What to Expect in Lectures:
- Large Classes
- Teacher is the Center of Attention
- You’ll be Learning by Listening
- You’re Absorbing new Information
- The Lecturer gives away Tips about the Exams
- Question time is usually Saved for the End
- You get to listen to Experts
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.