Archaeology’s Assessed Seminars

In this article Michelle Alexander, Steve Ashby and Nicky Milner showcase one of the flagship Archaeology undergraduate modules, Assessed Seminars, taught at the end of the third year, which engages with many of the concepts within the new York Learning and Teaching Strategy, and in particular student-led learning.

Archaeology’s Assessed Seminar module already meets the criteria set out in C1.2 of the strategy, particularly:

“….Carefully-designed student work will engage, challenge and enthuse our students by drawing directly on activities known to enhance learning, for example spaced and interleaved practice, retrieval of previously-learned material in new contexts, collaboration, and development of transferable skills.”

The module allows us to assess the final stages of our students’ ‘ascent’ through three years of higher education, building on knowledge, skills, and confidence acquired through diverse modes of learning and assessment across their seven previous terms of study. Its basis is carefully conceived in pedagogic terms: the value of independent research has recently been reaffirmed by the HEA (Thomas et al. 2015), while the power of teaching through active learning is well established (e.g. Jenkins 1992), and the combination of verbal and written assessments allows students to engage with material in diverse ways (Brown & Glasner 1999). Moreover, Kremer and McGuinness (1998), 46) have lauded the benefits of student-led or leaderless groups; that is, learning groups in which a power structure or hierarchy is deliberately suppressed, and where all participants are encouraged to play an active part in the life of the group.

Student led learning

The Department of Archaeology’s ‘Assessed Seminars’ aren’t just student-led seminars, they are student-designed seminars. The module runs over two terms. The first term is led by the module leader who initially lectures on the key concepts of their chosen module theme (e.g. Sustaining the Historic Environment, or Human Impact on Past Ecosystems) and following this, the lecturer supports the students in choosing and researching their own seminar topic within that theme. Each student then designs a seminar ‘worksheet’ around a question or a debate, sets up two presentation topics for two other students to present, and provides the reading for them. The worksheet is uploaded onto the Yorkshare VLE for their classmates to access. This seminar design is essentially the way a lecturer would normally prepare a seminar-based module, but by giving the students the task they are challenged to engage fully with the process of research, and the construction of a debate. The rationale for this type of teaching is outlined during an introductory session attended by the entire year group, so that students understand the benefits of active participation in their own learning, and the introduction of new transferable skills, such as chairing and organisation.

The second part of the process is the assessment, and over a period of three weeks, the group of approximately 12 students runs 12 seminars. The module leader is present throughout to assess the seminars but they do not speak, reinforcing the idea that students have to take full responsibility and ownership of their learning. Each student must chair their own seminar, and within their allotted hour they will introduce the topic, introduce each presenter, ensure presentations are kept to time, ask follow-up questions, encourage all students to contribute to the discussion, and conclude at the end. Each presentation should reflect good preparation, wide reading, and in-depth knowledge and understanding, and they should be critical and analytical, rather than simply descriptive. The presenter should be aiming to stimulate further discussion and debate, which will be directed by the chair. In addition, presentation style is important — students need to think carefully about the structure and design of their PowerPoint, and need to speak clearly, slowly, audibly, and engagingly.

Current student feedback 2015

Best seminars I’ve had in uni, everyone talking and being engaged.

This was one of the best modules, loads of fun and very interesting.

More than any other module, this one seems most clearly to reflect effort put in – to success and achievement

Thoroughly enjoyable. I enjoyed how the running and formulation of our seminars was put into our hands – but the support from staff was always there.

I feel this module was effectively run and aided my personal development as a scholar

Assessment requirements

The students are told that the success of their presentation depends on:

  • skill and diligence in preparation;
  • their own grasp of the material;
  • their skill as a chairperson;
  • full collaboration of their fellow students in doing the reading and preparing good papers, which will benefit all.

During this process, examiners (members of staff) will mark both the chair and the presenters, as well as noting the contributions from other students. Finally, students each write a two-part reflective critique on their seminar. Part 1 provides an account of what happened in the seminar and how it could have been improved, indicating the nature of the topic, the problems posed, the material presented, the opinions expressed, and the chairperson’s conclusions. The students should reflect on how successful they thought the seminar was. If it didn’t live up to their expectations – why not? How would they approach the exercise differently now that they’ve been through it once? Part 2 should provide views on further development of the intellectual content of the seminar, with suitable additional referencing and data as appropriate. They can restructure or even rewrite their seminar as they see fit, incorporating any further reading and consideration of the topic. In this way the report is reflexive not only in terms of the seminar, but also as a learning experience.

The assessment is weighted:

  • Seminar worksheet 20%
  • Chaired seminar: 20%
  • Presentation 1: 20%
  • Presentation 2: 20%
  • Critique: 15%
  • Seminar contribution: 5%

Student development

This module was first introduced into the Department of Archaeology over 30 years ago, and it has survived changes in staff, modularisation, and a growth in cohort from less than 10 students in the 1980s to between 75-100 students today. The reasons for this are clear: it engages and challenges students to think critically and communicate clearly (see Beachboard & Beachboard 2010); it promotes research-led teaching (Zamorski 2002); it encourages collaboration (Bruffee 1999); and it offers experience in transferable skills, such as giving professional-style presentations, chairing, time management, self motivation and reflection (see (Fallows & Steven 2000).

Student feedback demonstrates that the students acknowledge the acquisition of new skills (cf. Beachboard & Beachboard 2010), and appreciate the confidence-boost which independent learning provides to them. Staff also enjoy teaching it. Each module is directly linked to their research interests. Furthermore, because this module is the culmination of the undergraduate degree, it is a possible to see a clear progression in terms of personal development and confidence. Comments from alumni reflect this, and illustrate how the skills developed in this module have helped them in professional situations, such as meetings, interviews, and public speaking.

Alumni feedback

Keri Rowsell (2010) (Technician and PhD student)

“The assessed seminar module was by far my favourite undergraduate module and has arguably been the most useful to me in post-university life. By giving presentations both during my own and other colleagues’ seminars, I increased my confidence with public speaking. Through planning and chairing my own seminar, I improved my project management skills and learned the importance of being able to think on my feet. By working as part of a team, contributing ideas, time and support to each other, we ensured that everyone had a successful seminar. In the jobs I’ve had following university, and now as part of my PhD, I use all of these skills on a regular basis.”

Rachelle Martyn (PhD student)

“The module allows you to be at the forefront of academic teaching, whilst highlighting a sense of accountability. You’re both responsible for coordinating a seminar for others to participate in, and for being an active member in those of your colleagues. In order to do this, we were challenged to seek out new ways to engage with bioarchaeological concepts, remain up to date with the very latest developments in archaeological science, and most importantly, to relish the opportunity for a good debate.”

Ben Elliot (Archivist, lecturer, and now post-doc researcher)

“They change your whole perspective on meetings, seminars and interviews, and help you to understand the most effective and efficient ways to prepare when going into those environments.”

Andrew Marriott (PhD student in Newcastle)

“I thought this was a really valuable module and an excellent opportunity to stretch into the arena of something like “In Our Time”. I found the opportunities presented by the assessed seminars to be particularly stimulating and rewarding. Asking for a deep and broad examination of a selected topic, it demanded investment on a number of fronts. It was a great medium for exploring established and developing ideas in archaeology. Especially through the sub-presentations, it gave everyone the chance to work collaboratively and properly extend skills in organisation and teamwork. I felt that we all grew in confidence and in our abilities to articulate ideas in a sharpening intellectual environment and also to listen to others. Allowing the opportunity for an appraisal of your own work was an important element…It provided a great bridge to post-graduate study having exposed everyone to the experience of presenting, debating and directing study as well as acknowledging the need for negotiation and perhaps compromise in pursuing ideas; I felt that gave King’s Manor graduates distinct advantages on the Master’s course. For those going directly to employment the evidence from the summative assessments should be of great value. It was also really enjoyable!”

Matthew Jenkins (Post-PhD, substitute lecturer)

“The assessed seminars were the culmination of the whole undergraduate training in presentation skills. This was a process that began in the first term of the first year and by the time of the assessed seminars at the end of third year you could really appreciate how far yourself and the other students had come. All the students (with a wide range of abilities) were able to master an unfamiliar brief, analysing a range of sources to produce a professional-standard presentation that highlighted the key points. As someone who has both taken the course and now taught it, the ability of students to do this and the quality of presentation skills they attain is impressive.”

Chloe Andrews (History teacher)

“The course has helped me so much and I don’t think I’d be able to stand up in front of a class if I hadn’t built up my confidence through all the seminars I’ve participated in over the last three years!”

Emily Hellewell (Part-time museum worker and PhD student)

“The skills and confidence that I developed through the assessed seminars have been really useful in my jobs. The assessed seminars gave me the confidence to speak up during a meeting and to formulate my own ideas and be able to communicate them in a formal round table setting.”

Guro Rolandsen (Nurse and excavator in Norway)

“Assessed seminars was one of my favourite modules at undergrad. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of planning a seminar of high intellectual and academic quality–which upon completion gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride in my work. In addition to conveying my interests, it was great to focus in on specific aspects of archaeology which I had researched for a long time and discuss these with my peers.”


Beachboard, M.R. & Beachboard, J.C., 2010. Critical-Thinking Pedagogy and Student Perceptions. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 1. Available at:
Brown, S. & Glasner, A. eds., 1999. Assessment Matters in Higher Education: choosing and using diverse approaches, Buckingham: Open University.
Bruffee, K.A., 1999. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Fallows, S. & Steven, C., 2000. Building employability skills into the higher education curriculum: a university-wide initiative. Education + Training, 42(2), pp.75–83.
Jenkins, A., 1992. Active learning in structured lectures. In G. Gibbs & A. Jenkins, eds. Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education. How to Maintain Quality with Reduced Resources. London: Kogan Page, pp. 63–77.
Kremer, J. & McGuinness, C., 1998. Cutting the cord: student‐led discussion groups in higher education. Education + Training, 40(2), pp.44–49.
Thomas, P.L., Jones, R. & Ottaway, J., 2015. Effective practice in the design of directed independent learning opportunities, Higher Education Academy QAA Report.
Walker, A. et al., 2015. Essential Readings in Problem-Based Learning, Purdue University Press.
Zamorski, B., 2002. Research-led Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: A case. Teaching in Higher Education, 7(4), pp.411–427.

A3_Michelle Alexander biopic Michelle Alexander is an early career Lecturer in Bioarchaeology in the Department of Archaeology. She is the Chair of the Teaching Committee, responsible for reviewing teaching quality in the Department and oversees the appointment and training of postgraduates who teach. Michelle is particularly interested in engaging students with rapidly evolving research in archaeological science through the use of innovative teaching practice.

A3_Steve Ashby biopic Steve Ashby is Senior Lecturer and Chair of Board of Studies in Archaeology. He is supervisor on York’s PGCAP Programme, and member of the Board of Studies for Academic Practice. Steve has three interests in teaching about the past (1) its use as a case study in the integration of the sciences, arts and humanities; (2) its use as a vehicle for developing critical thinking, and (3) its use for discussing contemporary attitudes to politics, economics, and identity.

A3_Nicky Milner biopic Nicky Milner has been Chair of Board of Studies, Chair of Archaeology Teaching Committee and is now Deputy Head of Department, in overall charge of teaching in the department. She has an interest in promoting research-led teaching in the department and encouraging novel methods of engaging students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s