Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

Reimagining Seminar Classes During COVID-19 & Beyond

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us taught in-person seminar and discussion-based courses within the same frameworks we learned as students in our discipline. We reflected on mentors and educators we admired and modeled our teaching techniques on their strategies. I do this myself, delving into my mental file cabinet for critical thinking assignments from one mentor, reading strategies from another. In a way, our teaching techniques are a mosaic of our educational and intellectual journeys.

One of the challenges of remote and hybrid learning is that many instructors do not have a reference point in that mosaic for remote, hybrid, HyFlex, or socially distanced in-person learning. When our own meaningful experiences of deep learning occurred primarily around a seminar table, video conferencing and learning management systems seem like an inadequate substitute for fostering rich dialogue and camaraderie in the classroom.

As a seminar instructor for both undergraduates and graduate students, I have spent significant time thinking about meeting the needs of students in this new context. Here, I outline key elements of student-centered design as educators reimagine the seminar format: Backwards Design (focusing on Learning Objectives) and Time Management.  

Backwards Design

The first step in reimagining the seminar is to acknowledge your “I’ve always done it this way” feelings and shift the focus from your regular mode of communication to the learning objectives you establish for your course. This type of thinking is known as “backwards design.” (see this Searle Center Guide or Understanding by Design)

In other words, design your course around the skills and content you want students to develop. Instructors (especially at CSU) who have completed Quality Matters training will find this reminiscent of the QM rubrics for online instruction. For historians and social studies educators, the American Historical Association calls this process “tuning.” At Cleveland State University, resources on transferable skills are available at the Career Center. Instructors can use these materials to write learning objectives which students can add to their resumes as marketable skills.

Backwards Design Meets Common Seminar Activities

 Assigning scholarly monographs and articles


  • What do we want students to learn?
    • Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) outlines Historical Thinking Skills such as sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading as a key learning goal for critical reading. Recently, Dr. Sam Wineburg and the SHEG developed the Civic Online Reasoning site to demonstrate the application of historical thinking skills across the disciplines to teach information literacy.
  • How do we support learners?
    • Instead of focusing exclusively on the content of the reading, spend time during the beginning of your seminar modeling the practice of critical reading. Show them your own critical reading templates (this is my historical thinking worksheet). Introduce them to Wineburg’s work on historical thinking. Lay the groundwork for them to learn these important transferable skills.
    • Monographs are expensive and often hard to access during the current COVID-19 crisis. Ask yourself if an article by the same author or on the same topic might teach students the critical reading skills they would learn from analyzing a longer text? Not to mention the focus and time it takes to read a monograph (see estimates in this Workload Estimator from Wake Forest University)
    • Consider open access materials or create an Open Educational Resource (OER) to accompany your course.
    • Think about alterative format assessments for this learning objective. For example, see this curriculum on historical thinking and information literacy developed by the Gender Studies Resources team.

In-person discussions


  • What do we want students to learn?
    • First, historical thinking and the ability to place scholarship in the context of the discipline.
    • Second, discussion provides students with an example of how scholars learn from each other.
  • How do we support learners?
    • A key part of the seminar format is teaching students critical reading skills. Students in a wide variety of learning situations benefit from reading and taking notes on class materials as a group (often asynchronously). Instructors may guide their thinking through prompts and tags. This spring, I curated the readings ahead of time in, adding my typical discussion prompts in the text where I would normally direct students verbally in seminar (see this episode of Tea for Teaching). If you prefer, Dr. Danica Savonick (SUNY Cortland) demonstrates using Google Docs and Zoom for close reading & social annotation.
    • Replace long lecture/discussion sessions with workshops, podcasts, focused reading discussions, or video overviews. In my courses we break up the scheduled 1- or 3- hour discussion with 20 minute segments like collaborative annotation, focused video chat, and skills workshops. See this example of short videos curated by creative writer Kenny Fries, “What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?” (excerpted from his book, Stumbling over History) for ideas of chunking a full-length lecture into segments.

Writing Assignments & the “Final Essay”


  • What do we want students to learn?
    • Students will learn effective written communication skills for both general and academic audiences.
  • How do we support learners?
    • Use a series of planning assignments to guide students through longer written assignments, such as those that meet Writing Across the Curriculum criteria. Have students submit their thesis statement, bibliography, outline or concept map, first draft, and final draft in separate assignments throughout the semester.
    • Adopt Project-Based Learning or UnEssay frameworks for traditional writing assignments that focus on your learning objectives, yet provide students with the flexibility to choose the end product.
    • Encourage students to publish or present their work in open access journals, academic blogs, digital research fairs, or in department venues like the one created by Plymouth State University’s English Department.

Time Management

The COVID-19 moment has made it increasingly clear that instructors and students need to be partners in managing tasks and time. Make sure that you do your part to support students. Remember that students are struggling to meet deadlines and learn new technology for 3-5 different instructors.

  • Understand the amount of time you are asking students to spend on tasks. Browse the time management resources in the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative Resource Referatory. Ask your students what works for them periodically throughout the semester.
  • Create a course roadmap (see these templates from Dr. Nicole Campbell at Western University) and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Provide students with regular overviews of course expectations. In my courses, I post and email “Week at Glance” summaries outlining the readings, assignments, quizzes, and office hours.

Concluding Thoughts

These strategies are only a sample of the how instructors can adapt seminar courses for diverse learning formats during COVID-19. Importantly, the guidance in this post is based not only on my experiences as an instructor, but also on regular feedback solicited from my students at various points throughout the semester (I use the CSU Starfish progress survey schedule as reminders to send feedback forms to my students). The resulting seminar practices are not perfect, but they go a long way to creating an engaging learning community outside the “familiar walls” of our classrooms, to quote Charles Ellenbogen and Jason White, and adds a new piece to our teaching and learning mosaic.

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