This is related to "Skimming through a math paper with a group" and "What do professors gain out of teaching reading courses with individual Ph.D students", but from the other side :)

I've experimented with various ways to run my advanced Ph.D seminar, ranging from almost-lectures to "students present papers" to "students present textbook-level material" to "let's all work on a problem together". I don't think any of them have really worked to my satisfaction in the sense of ending the semester feeling that students have a command (as opposed to knowledge) of the material.

I've been reading about the Oxford tutorial style approach, which can crudely be approximated by:

  • professor assigns reading material once a week
  • students form pairs and meet with professor once a week for about 1-1.5 hours.
  • students run the meeting (maybe one person presents and the other critiques, or they work out shared portions of the material on the board). Professor keeps quiet as far as possible except to unblock.

This format sounds tempting, as something that might work with a small group (at most 10 people). Does anyone have experience with this format and would it be suitable for advanced material at the graduate level ?

While I'm hoping it doesn't matter too much for this discussion, the topics for the seminar would be in theoretical computer science.

  • As a student I can say that my favorite variant of reading groups (in terms of forcibly maximizing what I learn) is the: students present and discuss papers together guided by pointed questions from the prof; at the end of the semester each student is expect to produce an independent mini-survey on some specific set of papers/topic (often a list of papers/topics is available from the prof, but other related suggestions welcome) Commented Mar 18, 2012 at 20:11
  • A tutorial with one or two students can work very well. But that's a completely different animal to a tutorial with ten students. The success of the former does not translate directly to the latter; you have to run the latter in a completely different way. So, which do you want to do? If you want tutor ten at a time, then Oxford-style is an irrelevant distraction, I'm afraid.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Sep 22, 2012 at 6:16
  • Check this out: colinraffel.com/blog/role-playing-seminar.html
    – tales
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 14:09

4 Answers 4


Although it's quite a while since you posted this question but here's what I've seen been extremely effective (when I was a student for those courses).

Course 1: A theory course with reading and understanding of advanced material

  • The professor took great effort in actually explaining everything using a chalk and board (better than PowerPoint for theoretical course IHMO). Of course, we were told to read the papers but he explained as if teaching in a chapter/concept in the lecture. Thereafter, he'd assign us some homework problems and we were allowed to do them in groups. Now, these HW problems were really innovative. They weren't part of any book. He would actually "create" them based on the ideas he was teaching. He would cast an existing problem, either from something he was working on or just create one and ask us to solve it. THAT was the master's stroke, IMHO. The entire class would bang their heads against the wall to solve them and learn a lot as a result. We could solve the problems but not always, but the fun part was applying what we learned, consequently requiring us to understand the material really well.

Course 2: Exact same format as you mentioned as well as that suggested by @lynxoid

  • Nothing learnt. Honestly. Only the people assigned the papers actually read them. Maybe a few questions here and there but very little interaction other than some from the professor. Overall, the students weren't really happy with it. I barely even remember half the things from that class. But for the former, remember almost everything.

Another variation you could try with style #1 (I read about this somewhere): Tell them that you are going to tell one "lie" (false information) when explaining the material. They have to spot the lie by the end of class. If they don't, they have learned something that is not true. If they spot it, a small reward like a chocolate else, it's a HW due next week. This drives them nuts. You can make the lies progressively complex and sometimes not lie too (You can say that you lied when you told them that every lecture would have a lie :) I haven't tried this variation but will do so soon. I feel this is an excellent way to get them to master the course content.

Hope this helps


I have seen reading seminars done like this: in the beginning of the semester, professor publishes a full list of papers + a little extra that (s)he wants to cover. Each student then picks a paper or two and the date when they will present it. Then the student reads the paper, prepares a presentation on it, and speaks about it to the rest of the group. Presentation can be formal or informal (depending on the size of the class) and encourage other students to ask questions about the material. What I like about this approach is that 1) students get to pick a paper that will engage them 2) they have to read it and understand it so that they could present it to the group and be able to answer questions about it.

  • 5
    that's how I run the seminars right now. the problem is that often only the presenter has read the material, and there's little discussion.
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 1:53
  • 1
    in this reading group, people usually showed up with papers printed out, so that they could follow what the presenter was talking about. that made asking questions easier (can mark in the paper, read in depth and ask if speaker understands the problem better). also - providing criticisms and "what would you do better" attitude usually spurs discussions easily
    – lynxoid
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 22:24
  • 5
    I have done this (as a student) and I can't say I took anything away from the others' presentations. It was more about showing the faculty you can prepare a presentation given academic material, less about learning in a group.
    – Raphael
    Commented Sep 22, 2012 at 9:25
  • @Raphael I wonder if size is the issue? Our group was usually 5-7 people.
    – lynxoid
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 21:01
  • @lynxoid Sounds about the same. To be fair, the goal of these seminars I was referring to was to train presentation (verbally and in writing) so the audience did not need to or necessarily care to follow the content. If the shared goal of the group is to understand all the material, things are bound to be different.
    – Raphael
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 21:31

I haven't been in a class like this but my husband recommends the following (as a student - he says he learned the most in this format):

  • Professor assigns reading (1 paper/meeting)
  • At the beginning of the meeting, more or less randomly select one student to be the advocate of the paper and one to criticize it.
  • Have the two selected students lead the discussion - the others are encouraged to participate, too, after the selected students have given an overview of the paper together and each made their opening point.
  • If the group runs out of material, the professor may help.
  • If there are grades, students are graded on their participation in all the discussions - not just the ones they lead.

The trick is the random selection. The students have to believe that they can be chosen to advocate or criticize the paper in any meeting, so they'll at least read it far enough to find one good point and one point to criticize.

You can roll dice or draw straws at the beginning of the semester - toward the middle, you should pick the students who haven't had a turn yet, then after everybody had a turn, go back to straws/dice.


Best proseminar:

Long list of papers and book chapters, about three per week, carefully chosen to be easy to read at first, then more wiley.

We all had to write a précis on the same one of the papers each week. The other papers were related, usually contradicting each other about the same topic. At least everyone had read one of the papers so we could discuss.

I learned how to read papers that way.

At the end of the semester we all had to assign three papers to the class once and lead that discussion.

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