Adapting seminar courses

Adapting seminar courses

Getting started

In a small seminar, learners read/watch assigned materials before class, think about the learning materials, and then connect the materials to the major themes of the course. Then, learners come to class prepared to make sense of what they have read with the group, engaging in deep reflection and discussion. The instructor might clarify misconceptions through lectures.

Add learning content

Readings and other media

List required readings. You can upload a file to a course module in your LMS listing its objectives and required readings, or you can create a course page and list the information there.

Incorporate electronic options when available. Check with your instructional designer (ID), or campus librarian to learn more about electronic materials from academic publishers that can be integrated into your course.

Think beyond readings. There might be podcasts, documentaries, YouTube videos or TED Talks that support your learning goals. If prominent scholars or professional societies in your field are on social media, you might ask learners to “follow” them for additional insights.

Use library resources. You are encouraged not to upload PDFs of assigned journal articles to your modules. Not only is this a risk of copyright infringement, it denies the library information about which journals or databases are being accessed, which might ultimately cause those journals to be removed from the subscription list. Instead, provide complete citation information for learners so they can retrieve the articles.

Faculty can also create a reading list in your LMS, and/or work with a librarian to set up electronic reserves, which can be made available to course participants.

Create activities and assessments

Once you have established what learners need to learn and provided them with learning materials, the next step is to add activities to support them in learning and assessments that allow learners to demonstrate what they have learned.

There is overlap between “activity” and “assessment” in an online course, as the activities that support learning can also be used as low-stakes assessments.


As with lectures, online class discussions can be synchronous or asynchronous.

Enhancing discussions with technology

Use the following web-conferencing features to keep synchronous sessions interactive:

  • Breakout rooms allow students to discuss topics in smaller groups. You can create the rooms after the session has started, or pre-assign them.
  • Polls provide course participants a chance to respond quickly and anonymously to questions posed during the session.
  • Enable screen-sharing during the session so students can share their own work.
  • Allow students to annotate the whiteboard, or a slide you’ve shared. For example, share a slide of a chart or graphic organizer, and ask students to use the web-conferencing platform annotation tools to complete it.

LMS Discussion tools also have features that can add new dimensions to the conversation:

  • Use the rich content editor in your LMS to format the text of your discussion prompt, add links (to other parts course webpages), and embed videos.
  • Encourage learners to use these formatting tools as well.
  • Embed a media prompt (a diagram, video, etc.) for learners to respond to.
  • Give learners the option of using the media tools in the rich content editor to post responses.
  • For learners who are more comfortable speaking than writing, this provides a means for them to respond more fluently. In a language course, this allows you to assess learners’ pronunciation, grammar, etc.
Designing discussions for conversation, reflection and critical thinking

Regardless of modality, plan discussions that learners enjoy participating in—and that you enjoy assessing.

Make sure discussion prompts don’t have right answers. If all learners can post the same “correct” response to your prompt, this is not actually a discussion.

Ask learners to respond to assigned readings. They can share their takeaways and how they might apply what they learned to future research or practice. They can share any questions that remain or any “ah-ha!” moments that occurred. If appropriate, they might even share emotional responses—did the reading inspire them to some action, or anger them?

Consider the use of social bookmarking/annotation tools like Diigo, or, that can be integrated into your LMS and instruction. You can ask course participants to share their notes related to an assigned course reading, which can support them in understanding challenging material. You can also use these tools in conjunction with any of these 10 Activities to Foster Deep Reading in Digital Environments.

Present a case study and ask learners how they might respond. You could even create a case that unfolds over the course of the semester.

Have learners “test” each other over the material. One student starts the discussion by posing a question. The next student answers the first question and then poses a new question. The first student follows up by giving feedback on the second student’s response, providing references as appropriate.

Visit Project Zero’s Thinking Routines (from Harvard University) for many more creative ideas.


From short essays to multi-page research papers, writing assignments are often at the heart of a college course syllabus.

Using rubrics with written assignments can help clarify expectations for the assignment. For instructors, rubrics streamline the grading process and help ensure objectivity.

Provide feedback. Use the tools in your LMS for viewing student assignment submissions and providing feedback. You can read written submissions in the LMS and use the annotation tools in the platform to provide feedback within the document. Then, give feedback comments—written, multimedia, or as a file attachment—on the student’s work as a whole.


Giving an effective presentation is a critical academic and professional skill—planning the content of the talk, designing slides or other visual aids, and speaking to an audience.

Asking learners to present in a live session is one way to provide the opportunity for an authentic experience and allows classmates to respond in the moment.

VoiceThread is a tool that you might use to that provides an opportunity for learners to present asynchronously. They still must prepare and give a talk, but there is less pressure than doing so in front of a live audience, and the artifact persists beyond the end of the course and allows for asynchronous peer review and interaction.

You could also ask course participants to screen cast and record their presentations. Recordings can easily be shared with you (as an assignment), or with the class (embedded in a discussion reply). Check with your campus ID for the tools that may be supported to use for this purpose.

The presentations could follow a format, such as Ignite or Pecha Cucha that constrains the length and the number of slides permitted.

Electronic portfolios

Gathering course work into a portfolio can be an opportunity for online learners to reflect on their growth and learning during the course. For example, you could ask them to create a portfolio of their discussion contributions during the semester and ask them to find patterns, identify ideas that have evolved since the original posting, and so forth.

Check with your campus ID to see if your campus provides and supports a portfolio platform, or how you might achieve something similar in your course using LMS tools.

Other assessments

See the Alternative Assessments page for more ideas on how to assess your online learners.

Many faculty are concerned that online learners are more likely to cheat. See Tips for designing authentic online assessments to learn about teaching practices that can support academic honesty.

Build a learning community

Many faculty who move from face-to-face teaching to online instruction worry that their students will not develop a sense of community. However, there are steps you can take in your course design and teaching to cultivate student interaction and cohesion.

Instructor presence

If you want to build a learning community with your online students, the first step is cultivating instructor presence—being visible to and available to your students, and interacting with them as a person, not as disembodied chunks of text on a screen.

Some strategies for developing your instructor presence:

Introduce yourself to the class. Share a few personal details (family, pets, hobbies) in addition to your academic experience. Upload a photo to your LMS profile and in your welcome and introductory course pages.

Welcome learners to your course. Create a brief video (or VoiceThread) to go over the course requirements, and convey your own enthusiasm for the course and what you expect them to learn.

Regular announcements using the features of your LMS are a simple way to reach out to your course learners. Use announcements to provide a recap of content that was covered in the previous week and/or a preview of what’s coming in the week ahead. Remind them of upcoming due dates and events. Share relevant news items and current events. Definitely offer words of encouragement! Provide a mechanism for questions associated with announcements in case learners want to follow up on your remarks.

Create short, informal videos to make announcements or introduce lessons. You can use the rich content editor to record your video directly into your LMS. You can also create audio or video feedback using the tools in your LMS.

Communicate your availability to your students. In your syllabus and course information documentation, include your preferred means of contact and expected time frame for replying to questions and returning feedback on learner work. Host office hours in your web conferencing platform. Leverage groups and/or the LMS calendar, or other tools, to provide easy ways for learners to sign up for available meeting times with you.

Bring your voice and experience to the class. Most online communication is still written. It’s easy to fall into a formal, academic, third-person style when writing announcements and messages to students. Be professional but conversational, and use the second person (“you”) as often as possible.

Don’t be afraid to use yourself as an example. Talk about a discipline-related decision you had to make. Talk about how you applied a particular research method—why did you choose it for that particular study? How did it work? What mistakes did you make along the way, and how did you learn from those mistakes? When you connect the student learning to your own experiences, you show how it applies in the real world.

Learner engagement and connection

One element that differentiates a seminar course from a typical class is a sense of community. With intentional choices about your course design and activities, you can create the same community in an online class.

Set the ground rules for engagement. Make sure students understand that thoughtful, constructive debate is allowed (even encouraged!), but insults are not.

Start with an introduction or “ice breaker” activityThis can be as simple as a discussion thread in your LMS, in which learners can share a bit about themselves and why they are taking the course. You could ask them to respond to a fun or thought provoking question as well; for example, asking each learner to state two truths about themselves and one falsehood, inviting the rest of the class to guess the lie. Course participants could be asked to include a meaningful photo or to use the media recorder in the rich content editor to post a brief video.

In a web-conferencing session, you might ask each student to choose a thematic background picture (“a place you’d like to travel to,” or “something that begins with the letter M”).

Some additional ice-breaking ideas.

Include a general discussion board open to learners for social conversation. You might invite (not require) them to share personal news on “What’s New Wednesday” or something motivational on “Feel Good Friday.”

Plan collaborative work and peer reviewed work. For group assignments, you will need to set the groundwork:

  • Give group members a chance to get to know each other before beginning the actual project.
  • Consider asking each group to complete a contract: Preferred means of communication, available time to work on the project (especially if synchronous time is needed), how group members will address conflict or social loafing, and so forth.
  • If the task requires students to assume roles, ask students to establish those roles at the outset (e.g., “leader,” “reporter”).

As long as learners in a group reach a consensus on how to collaborate, give them flexibility. Make the LMS group tools available to them (including announcements, file sharing, and discussions), but let them know they can also meet via web-conferencing platforms, or even text each other (if all members agree to give out their mobile numbers).

When introducing an assignment with peer review, be sure to include a checklist or rubric to guide learners through the specifics of what they need to look for in the review.

Please see the following articles for additional tips:

Adapted from a resource originally found at (

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