How to get students to go to departmental seminars?


What is a good and equitable way to get more undergraduates to attend departmental seminars?

There was a little discussion last week about what we can do to get students into the room. Other than the standard approaches, I’m wondering if any of y’all have good ideas in addition to the standards.

What at the standards? I’ve identified three.

  1. Food.
  2. Extra credit. If you’ve been around here for a while, then you know how I feel about that. (In short, dangling extra credit in front of students to manipulate them into attending a seminar outside of your regularly scheduled class is, unless you offer an alternative avenue for credit to all, that that is not more onerous or time consuming.)
  3. Run the seminar series as a part of the curriculum, so that academic credit is associated with attending. Our seminars are usually near-full because we have a lot of students enrolling in our 1-unit seminar class (which students can take twice for elective units, and there is a written component to the class as well. Which I think works for us.) But I’m thinking about generating attendance for the occasional talk beyond those enrolled in the class. Because sometimes we have great speakers we know that they’ll like and learn from.

So other than 1-3, how do you get students into the room? This essentially must involve developing a culture of occasional seminar attendance. How do we foster that? And, how can we foster that in a primarily non-residential campus with students who work lots of hours?

One thing I just thought of would be to work up an association with the Art department, to find someone in design to create super cool flyers for every talk. Has anybody done that? What else you got?

17 thoughts on “How to get students to go to departmental seminars?

  1. I think the most important thing is making the seminar series worthwhile in its own right, and not to presuppose that it is already. One thing that works well in our grad program is scheduling time for students to meet individually and in groups with seminar speakers… we currently do this before the lecture but I imagine it might work even better if it were after. We invest in food for these meetings (lunch with speakers), and I think this facilitates high-bandwidth interactions. The actual lectures generally do not.

    We have lots to improve. I believe shorter lectures (and no matter what, really holding speakers to their time limit), more discussion with the speakers, possibly with intentional facilitation, and generally working against a model that entails a passive audience would all really help. If the seminar is simply 50+ minutes of somebody of unknown lecture quality talking about stuff that they have published (or will shortly), I think it’s very easy for students to prioritize other things.

    • Everyone please read this person’s comment VERY CAREFULLY. This says everything that needs to be said.

  2. We do 2 and 3. I give students who have other obligations an equivalent EC assignment (read a paper by the presenter and write a short summary). We get pretty good attendance and the limited feedback I’ve gotten on this is positive.

  3. Holding seminars after-hours (5 pm or later) forces students to remain after classes or return to campus. Not going to happen at commuter campuses.

    At Cal Poly SLO, they would hold their seminars as brown-bag lunchtime activities. Very good attendance, since they were convenient.

    Another option would be to hold a brown-bag lunchtime with the speaker. The seminar can be held after or before.

    Some faculty offer EC to attend, but that never really drew me in as a student. Interacting with an interesting biologists/topics did the trick.

  4. I set up a class for this. The students have to go to 10 seminars a semester from about 30 that I list. They pick one point from each talk and write 400 words on it. They can read extra papers but do not have to. I give them narrative comments on what they write. There are a lot of advantages to making it a class. First, this is the currency of academia. Second if they “have” to go, then they don’t feel like total imposters in a department club. One rule: notes must be taken by hand, no computers or ipads. Works very well. Makes the students feel they belong and they get rewarded. Email me if you want more details.

  5. As a recent undergraduate, I attended very few seminars in my Chemistry department. In retrospect, I should have gone to more, they open students’ eyes to research and methods not previously considered.

    Bellow are actions I believe me department could have taken to drive students to attend more seminars:

    1) Have faculty talk about the seminar in class and perhaps give a small presentation on the basics so students could understand the seminar better. The seminars I attended were too technical. I could not follow, and hence lost interest quickly.

    2) I think making more striking posters is an excellent idea. Bold font on brightly colored paper doesn’t cut it.

    Also, I think integrating the seminar into the course requirements would have definitely had me go more often. However, I don’t think this incorporation is fair to students that work and are already having a hard time balancing their priorities. Sometimes, it should be considered that students aren’t going to seminars because simply they cannot find the time, not that they are not interested.

  6. As a recently-former-undergrad, some things that made me and classmates go to seminars:
    – lecturers pointing out in lectures that a seminar was coming up and why it was relevant to the material they were covering (had one awesome professor who gave points for citing relevant seminar material in tests – you could mention any source-from-your-own-reading, but the seminars counted too)
    – holding seminars mid-afternoon (at the cost of not-everyone-can-come) or in the weekly university-wide ‘culture hour’ when there are deliberately no classes scheduled
    – food/coffee, obviously
    – the explicit policy (communicated to both the speaker and the audience) that there is no such thing as a stupid question, to encourage undergrads to a) come and b) ask questions

    • “– lecturers pointing out in lectures that a seminar was coming up and why it was relevant to the material they were covering”

      I have success with a variant on this: just telling students in the upper-level ecology courses I teach that, hey, there’s an ecology seminar coming up, it’s awesome speaker X talking about cool topic Y. It will definitely not be over your head, you’re welcome and encouraged to come. (aside: telling undergrads that the seminar won’t be over their heads is important, I think. In my experience most ecology seminars are pretty accessible to upper-level undergrads who’ve had a few ecology courses, but undergrads often mistakenly assume they won’t be able to follow the seminars.)

      Here at Calgary we get a lot of undergrad attendance at our annual Darwin Lecture, which is a big deal special event and is marketed as such. Lots of biology profs all encouraging the students in their classes to attend this special event. Many students who wouldn’t make time to attend a seminar every week will make time for a big-deal one-off public lecture by a top evolutionary biologist on a very broad evolutionary topic. So maybe one answer is “start an annual tradition–some sort of special seminar that’s distinguished in some way from regular seminars.”

  7. My PhD department had a successful seminar series. Three characteristic that I think set them apart from other universities I have been associated with are 1) graduate students had to take a 1-credit seminar class every other semester (which semester depended on when you started) in which they were required to attend each seminar, 2) their was a strong happy hour culture following the seminar. This was ran and organized by a graduate student committee and most speakers were given the option of picking the location. The group size was also large enough that non-drinkers did not feel pressure (this is my own opinion, but I never explicitly asked anyone. Just what I experienced from colleagues who did not drink), and 3) faculty showed up and consistently attended, which set an example for the students.

  8. We’ve struggled to get our majors to attend seminars, and it seems to have helped to have the seminar be partly (mostly) the responsibility of the student-run geology club. The officers have been responsible for contacting and scheduling speakers, the club budgets to pay for pizza (student government funds), and they often have club meetings right after. We’ve also scheduled some of the required courses on the same day – field methods meets right before seminar (and we hold the start if the class is late), and our research methods/writing classes are required to attend (the seminar hour is included in the course time-block). Getting a culture of “we go to seminar once a week” built up took a bit… and it cycles with interest in the geo club… but that was the best trick we could come up with. Now if only the faculty would consistently show up, too (our bad habits are no different that the ones that we complain the students have!)

  9. My school does a weekly seminar that is not well-attended, particularly in spring when many grad students are in or getting ready for their field season. One thing that prevents me from going to seminar is that it is ALWAYS, without fail, every quarter and every year, held at 5pm. I have suggested rotating, maybe 5pm in fall, noon in winter, and 9am in spring to give people some flexibility but unfortunately, the seminar has always and apparently therefore, will always, be held at 5pm. So…Our school does the grad student lunch and arranges for students and profs to meet with the speaker during the day before their talk. In my first quarter (pre-baby) when I went to seminar, it was extremely rare to see any profs in the seminar unless they were the host.
    And I agree with everything that “Rudgers student” said above. We (largely) acknowledge that lectures are not the best way to learn, so why would seminar be any different?

  10. Tried your flyer idea for Darwin Day. Paired up a Human Physiology class (DD lecture was on evolutionary medicine) with a design class — each group picked a topic and created posters based loosely on that (so the biologists had explain the science to the artists, and then the artists shared their process with the biologists). It worked out pretty well and some of the posters were amazing.

  11. Here are some ideas from where I’ve seen some seminar series fall short: 1) It’s key that faculty attend, otherwise it signals to students that it’s not worth attending. 2) It’s key that the speaker understands their audience and prepares accordingly. The department can at least make sure speakers are informed, even though they can’t really control what the speaker does with that info. There’s little worse than listening to a talk that’s appropriate for specialists in an area that’s different than mine. 3) If at all possible, don’t hold the seminar in a different building from where most of the students and faculty spend their time! This makes it easy to not show up. 4) Make sure it’s convenient for students to interact with speakers outside the seminar. As other commenters have pointed out, these interactions are often more valuable than the talk itself. But as an example of how it might not be so convenient, it’s typical that 1-on-1 or few-to-1 meetings with the speaker are held in faculty offices, but grad students (let alone undergrads) may not have easy access to a quiet, private space to hold a meeting like this.

  12. My dept has done a few things: 1) seminars are run by a graduate student committee and gets a decent budget (from dept, university student club funding, and outside fundraisers) to bring in speakers from afar, 2) each lab is invited to nominate speakers for the year and host them once they’re here, which increases buy-in, 3) there’s a permanent time slot on Thursday afternoons, 4) seminars are widely advertised and also specifically sent to other ecology-adjacent depts, and 5) there are ample opportunities to interact through grad lunches, meeting slots, and a casual reception.

    A different campus series offers a live broadcast online and provides archived talks, which definitely increases access but may not help with ‘butts in seats.’

    On the advertising note, I know our university offers some free graphic design services for clubs and departments, and we also use for customizable flyers that look pretty good.

  13. I saw with varying success over the years: 1- seminars earlier in the day, so no late (fri) afternoon slots; 2 – title of the seminar and abstract needs to be understandable by undergrads.. otherwise the speaker gets pinged and reminded of the more general nature of the seminar and 3 – attendance taken and with participation used as a decision factor for travel awards to conferences. For the latter, the argument is if you do not go to talks here why do we spend $ sending you to talks elsewhere.

    The critical factor, based on my experience with different departments, is faculty participation! Students feel cheated if seminars are announced in class and then faculty do not attend! This also applies to grad students.. if faculty attendance is low or non-existent.. student attendance will follow… If this becomes more of a social/community event where students the students see their faculty and can interact a little with them after, then attendance will do well.

  14. I think nothing like having the students choose the people giving the seminars fosters participation. They don’t have to do all of them or even most of them, but give them the opportunity to choose someone they are interested in hearing speak. Also inviting them to have lunch with the speaker during the day the person is visiting helps get them there as well. Students ask more questions in a lunch scenario, or even in a time set aside for them alone to speak with the speaker. It gets them involved.

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