I am teaching a PhD seminar (in social science) with only two students, both of whom are from other departments that are not very relevant to my field. I need to assume that they know nothing about the theories or concepts that will be discussed in this class.

Do you have any tips or recommendations? I used to have student-led discussions, but it seems unrealistic for two students to do so, especially as they have a limited prior understanding of the course content. In one week, I am considering assigning no readings but asking them to bring and present three research articles from their own field, which they can then develop into a final research paper.

  • I would presume that they are taking your course because they need/want to know more about what your course covers. Why do you assume they 'know nothing' coming in to a graduate class?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:12
  • Yes, they are interested in learning more about the course content. I should mention that their background is in the natural sciences and they are non-thesis track students. (This course has primarily been designed for PhD students who are writing a research paper.)
    – yul15
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:18

2 Answers 2


Great question. I think your approach is the right start, in the sense that you are meeting them where they are. Don't be afraid to also expose them to some of the conventions from your field, presumably they took this class, with you as instructor of record because they want to learn something from you as well. With such a small class it's a great opportunity for open discussion.

  • Thank you for the comment. I've been concerned about making this class engaging while maintaining the key content. Apart from asking them to bring their own research, do you have any other suggestions that I could incorporate into my class?
    – yul15
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:22
  • You could just have an open discussion on what they expect to get out of the course. Post pandemic I had a grad class that was in person only (while others went hybrid), so I ended up with very low enrollment (5 vs the normal 25), with 3 out of department. I was very flexible, and it was actually very fun to teach. Lots of discussion. Very engaged students.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:27
  • 1
    That's very relieving to hear, and thank you! I guess flexibility is key. I will encourage students to be involved in choosing the topics they want to discuss. Since I have weekly topics, we can vote on which ones are less interesting and add a week for each student's specialty.
    – yul15
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:32

There are two aspects to consider for the content of the course. The first is, asking the students, as written in R1NaNo's good answer. A seminar with only two students is an opportunity for something tailored exactly to the students needs and can be amazing learning experience for them.

The other aspect are the administrative bounds you have to satisfy. Your university pays you to teach that course, so there will be some rules. First check that the course is not automatically canceled if there are so few students. Next you may be required to have an exam or request a written paper from the students or something like that. Finally consider how much work you want to invest in the course. If the students are great such a course can be great fun and an infinite time sink but presumably you have other job duties as well.

  • Thanks! You are right. I've already dedicated so much time (perhaps more than I should have) to plan this course, and now I need to change many things with the low enrollment - from the readings to the class structure.
    – yul15
    Commented Jan 16 at 19:29

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