Discussion Skills for Tutorials & Seminars
Asking questions and joining in discussions are important skills for university
study. In many subjects, you will receive marks for tutorial participation
and this mark reflects how active you have been in tutorial discussions.
Why have discussions at University?
- To understand a subject or topic area more deeply.
- To explore ideas.
- To exchange information.
- To expand and clarify your knowledge.
- To improve your ability to think critically.
- To improve your language skills.
- To increase your confidence in speaking.
- A discussion can change your attitudes and ideas.
- A discussion can helps a group make a particular decision or come to
- A discussion gives you the chance to hear the thoughts and ideas of
Strategies for Improving Discussion Skills for Tutorials & Seminars
If you find it difficult to speak or ask questions in tutorials and seminars,
try the following strategies.
Attend as many seminars and tutorials as possible and notice what other
students do. Ask yourself:
- How do other students enter into the discussion?
- How do they ask questions?
- How do they disagree with or support the topic?
- How do other students make critical comments?
- What special phrases do they use to show politeness even when they are
- How do they signal to ask a question or make a point?
Learn to Listen
Listening is an essential skill and an important element of any discussion.
Effective listeners don't just hear what is being said, they think about
it and actively process it.
- Be an active listener and don't let your attention drift. Stay attentive
and focus on what is being said.
- Identify the main ideas being discussed.
- Evaluate what is being said. Think about how it relates to the main
idea/ theme of the tutorial discussion.
- Listen with an open mind and be receptive to new ideas and points of
view. Think about how they fit in with what you have already learnt.
- Test your understanding. Mentally paraphrase what other speakers say.
- Ask yourself questions as you listen. Take notes during class about
things to which you could respond.
You can't contribute to a discussion unless you are well-prepared. Attend
lectures and make sure you complete any assigned readings or tutorial assignments.
If you don't understand the material or don't feel confident about your
ideas, speak to your tutor or lecturer outside of class.
Practise discussing course topics and materials outside class. Start in
an informal setting with another student or with a small group.
asking questions of fellow students. Ask them about:
- the course material
- their opinions
- information or advice about the course
and responding to what they say. Try out any discipline-specific vocabulary
Becoming accustomed to expressing your views outside class will
help you develop skills you can take into the more formal environment of
a tutorial group.
If you find it difficult to participate in tutorial discussion, set yourself
goals and aim to increase your contribution each week.
An easy way to participate is to add to the existing discussion. Start by
making small contributions:
- agree with what someone has said or;
- ask them
to expand on their point (ask for an example or for more information)
a question to ask beforehand.
You can then work up to:
a question put to the group
- providing an example for a point under discussion
- disagreeing with a point.
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Tutorial Participation: Voicing an opinion and arguing a point effectively
What is an argument?
To 'argue' in an academic context is to put forward an opinion through
the process of reasoning, supported by evidence. An argument attempts to
persuade through rational and critical judgement. In academic writing an
argument is sometimes called a claim or a thesis statement, which is also
supported with evidence.
How do we argue at university?
The everyday meaning of the term argument suggests a fight: an aggressive
conflict or confrontation between adversaries, where one tries to dominate
the other in order to 'win'. At university this kind of arguing is not
The aim of academic argument is to explore a question, a proposition or
an area of knowledge and achieve reasoned mutual understanding. It is not
important who 'wins'—what matters most is the quality of the argument itself.
When you engage in academic argument in your tutorial discussions, you are
developing your ideas, advancing and clarifying your knowledge and learning
to think critically.
Voicing an Opinion in a Seminar
Participating in a tutorial discussion can be a bit scary, especially when
you want to disagree with a point of view and are not sure how to, or
of which language structures to use. Voicing your opinion and using effective
arguing techniques are valuable skills.
You may have a great idea, but you need to communicate it effectively and
support it. The three essential parts to a point of view are:
Three Steps to Voicing an Opinion
|1. A valid opinion (a believable point of view)
- I believe that ...
- I think that ...
- From what I understand ...
- As I understand it ...
|2. A reason why
- This is due to ...
- Because ...
- What I mean by this is ...
(relevant and up-to-date examples, statistics, explanations and/ or
expert opinions). If you have actual data, examples or expert opnions
on hand, refer to the source.
- This can be seen by ...
- For instance ...
- For example ...
- An example can be seen ...
- (Author's name) states that ...
- (Author's name) suggests...
- Statistics from (give a source) indicate ...
'Arguing' at Uni: How to disagree effectively
Disagreeing can be problematic as people often speak before they think
things through. You may be trying
to disprove another speaker's point, but it is also important to disagree
politely. Try the following.
Three steps to use when disagreeing with another speaker
|1. Acknowledge their thoughts/ ideas
- I can see your point - however ...
- That's a good point, but ...
- I see what you're getting at/ where you're coming from, but ...
- I see what you mean - however...
|2. Then explain why you disagree
- That's not always the case because ...
- That's not neccessarily true because ...
- This idea isn't supported by statistics/ evidence ...
- I thought the author meant that ...
|3. Offer your opinion complete with reason and support
- From what I've read ...
- The statistics seem to indicate that ...
- I think what (author's name) may actually be suggesting is ...
- Other studies by (author's name) show that ...
Now, be prepared for counter-argument and further discussion!
Remember, confidence is the key. If you do your tutorial preparation and
think things through, you can speak with confidence and believe that your
contribution will be valid.
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Discussion Etiquette (or minding your manners)
In order to successfully negotiate tutorial discussion, courtesy is important.
The following are a few ground rules for good conduct.
- Respect the contribution of other speakers. Speak pleasantly and with
courtesy to all members of the group.
- Listen well to the ideas of other speakers; you will learn something.
- Acknowledge what you find interesting.
- Remember that a discussion is not a fight. Learn to disagree politely.
- Respect differing
views. Those who hold them are not necessarily wrong.
- Think about your contribution before you speak. How best can you answer
the question/ contribute to the topic?
- Try to stick to the discussion topic. Don't introduce irrelevant information.
If the discussion does digress, bring it back on topic by saying something
like 'Just a final point about the last topic before we move on' or 'that's
an interesting point, can we come back to that later?
- Be aware of your body language. Keep
it open and friendly. Avoid gestures that appear aggressive.
- Speak clearly. Don't whisper; even if
you're feeling uncertain about your ideas or language.
- Don't take offence if another speaker disagrees with
you. Putting forward
different points of view is an important part of any discussion. Others
may disagree with your ideas, and they are entitled to do so.
- Never try to intimidate or insult another speaker or ridicule the contribution
- Don’t use comments like 'that’s stupid' or 'you're wrong'. Learn to disagree
and argue appropriately.
- Take care to use a moderate tone of voice. If you sound angry or aggressive
others will not want to listen to you.
- If you are a confident speaker, try not to dominate
Pause to allow quieter students a chance to contribute.
- Avoid drawing too much on personal experience or anecdote. Although
some tutors encourage students to reflect on their own experience, remember
not to generalise too much.
- Don't interrupt or talk over another speaker. Let them finish their
point before you start. Listening to others earns you the right to be heard.
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Leading a Discussion
You may be in a seminar group that requires you to lead a group discussion,
or lead a discussion after an oral presentation. You can lead a discussion
- introducing yourself and stating the purpose of the discussion
- asking questions to stimulate the discussion
- making sure no one dominates the discussion by inviting and encouraging
contributions from all students
- ensuring only one member of the group speaks at a time
- ensuring the discussion remains relevant and doesn't drift off topic
- summarising or rephrasing a speaker's point
- summarising the discussion
Chairing a Group Discussion
When chairing a discussion group you must communicate in a positive way
to assist the speakers in accomplishing their objective. There are at least
four leadership skills you can use to influence other people positively and
help your group achieve its purpose. These skills include:
- introducing the topic and purpose of the discussion
- introducing yourself and the other speakers
- making sure all members have approximately the same time to speak
- thanking group members for their contribution
- being objective in summarising the group’s discussion and achievements.
Ballard, B. & Clanchy, J., Study Abroad, Longman, 1984
Hollett et al., In at the Deep End, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Oxford Wallace, M., Study Skills in English, 1980. 1 May 2002.
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