Seminars and Discussion-based online courses

What are we trying to achieve in a seminar course?

The hallmark of seminar courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level is the opportunity for students to engage in exploratory discussion and grapple with complex topics, learning to articulate their point of view and to present thoughtful arguments.

Often, students do background reading on their own and then come together in groups to hash out, in varying forms, what they’ve learned. Traditionally, this “coming together” has been in one physical location at a particular (often 3-hr) time, but neither the time nor the place are required. Students can work together synchronously while physically apart, and can conduct a discussion just as effectively across an asynchronous time span. In the classroom, discussions are verbal, but online, they can be either oral or written, or a combination.

How do we do it?

There are many ways for seminars to be run in the classroom and online. Background reading for a particular week can be

  • assigned
  • chosen by a student from a list, or
  • completely student-generated.

Seminars can be facilitated by the instructor or can be led by one or more students. Students can be assigned different roles for each seminar/week so that they contribute to the discussion in different ways.

For example, students (or groups of students) can:

  • plan and facilitate the discussion;
  • design and propose activities;
  • answer the discussion questions while others are tasked exclusively with engaging with the responses;
  • be assigned to play the Devil’s Advocate for a particular discussion;
  • participate in structured debates;
  • role-play, taking different sides of an issue; etc.

Although seminars usually have an important discussion component, the source material does not need to be assigned readings. There can be student presentations, individuals or groups working on case studies or problems, or other assignments and activities. However, a hallmark of a seminar course is a rich discussion among classmates.

How do we do all of that online?

You might be wondering how to design an engaging discussion online. Tasks and workflow must be planned in detail in advance, and clear instructions on workflow and expectations are crucial. Consult the examples below for the level of detail that students appreciate, which will reduce the number of housekeeping questions.

For more detailed seminar assessments beyond discussions, have a look at these 4th year Social Development Studies courses



  • Balance of individual and group assignments
  • The latter includes a group presentation and facilitated discussion
  • NOTE: the group presentation uses a tool called VoiceThread, and the approach/instructions must be revised in order to use a video/PPT presentation or Video assignments + Discussion boards.

Keeping it lively and engaging

You’ll want to spend some time coming up with great discussion prompts, and coaching students to do the same. To help you and your students come up with thoughtful prompts for discussion, see Questions for a Socratic Dialogue.

For a deeper dive into using questions as discussion prompts, you can review: Best Practice Strategies for Effective Use of Questions as a Teaching Tool

Here are some tips to foster an environment in which deep, meaningful learning can occur: Creating Presence Online

Look here for more information about Collaborative Online Learning: Fostering Effective Discussions as well as for up-to-date information about which University of Waterloo-supported tools are available for discussions and seminar courses: