I noticed that occasionally, the title of a course will be something like "Special Seminar in Topic X". A student can take this special seminar course for 3 course credits, just like a regular course. What is the difference between a seminar course and a regular course, and why is the seminar course referred to as a "seminar"?

(I do have some knowledge about what a seminar course is, but I am asking this question because I feel that the answer may be useful for others.)

  • I asked another question about "seminal" that might shed some light. The etymology of the word "seminal" suggests that it is designed to start something. It provides a launching pad off of what others can build on. Jul 5, 2017 at 3:53
  • More colloquially, I would say seminar classes tend to give brief overviews of many different topics in a particular field. Like each class being a cursory overview of each sub-subject within a particular subject. Jul 5, 2017 at 4:00
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    Our register makes is really hard to add a new class. So we have a couple of classes on the books called "Seminar in public policy" and "Special Topics in Public Policy" which we can use to try topics and see how they go. We just advertise to the students with the courses's real title.
    – Dawn
    Jul 5, 2017 at 11:09

1 Answer 1


It depends on where you are located. In many english-speaking countries the word 'seminar' refers to a research talk.

In german universities a seminar is a particular type of course in which students are assigned some topic on which they have to prepare a report or a presentation or both (usually). Almost universally one aim of such a course is to let students develop their presentation skills and to give them an opportunity to engage with the literature.

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    I studied in America, and your second use of "seminar" is known there too. My PhD institution has a "Contemporary Math Seminar" where PhD students present a talk on a math topic of their choice.
    – Darren Ong
    Jul 5, 2017 at 4:23
  • Actually, studying at a german unversity I also learned, that a seminar in my field (or generally in science) was a very different thing from a seminar in philology at the same university. It took me and my roommate a while to figure out why we were constantly misunderstanding each other when talking about our seminars.
    – skymningen
    Jul 5, 2017 at 12:29
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    @skymningen What is the difference between the two seminars? Jul 5, 2017 at 13:00
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    Mine worked as @CrepusculeWithNellie described. I had to read up on a topic and write a report and give a presentation. His were generally about a specific book or author. All students were supposed to read and generally prepare the same part of text and in the seminar the professor would lead them through translating and interpreting this text, while everyone was supposed to participate. So basically I was preparing for a long time for one session, he was preparing a little before every session.
    – skymningen
    Jul 5, 2017 at 13:11

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