Practicing scientific discourse

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In contrast to other seminars, in which students just read and present scientific papers, this very interactive seminar also includes discussions that are prepared and chaired by students. The students are introduced to working with scientific literature, and participate in a training to moderate discussions. Subject experts support the students in the process of reading newly published scientific literature and preparing for presentation and discussion.

The “Seminar for Bachelor-Students: Biogeochemistry” is a mandatory course in the fifth semester for BSc students in environmental sciences with specialization in Biogeochemistry.

Overarching Goal

The participants of the seminar practice scientific communication in the field of biogeochemistry by…

  • reading, interpreting, and evaluating scientific publications and geting to know relevant literature in the field of biogeochemistry.


  • … practicing methods to present scientific findings and by being introduced to and experimenting with moderation techniques for chairing discussions.
  • … learning how to give and to accept constructive feedback.

How is it done?

The main concept of the course is to have a seminar with more interactive elements and discussions in comparison to standard seminars focusing on paper presentations. For this purpose, the seminar includes several elements, arranged as follows:

The course starts with a general introduction lecture about scientific literature and presentation / moderation. In that meeting, pairs of students are assigned to one scientific publication (and the corresponding faculty expert). Their task for the upcoming weeks is to read the publication, discuss it with their expert tutor, prepare themselves to present the study and to moderate a discussion about the paper. In the two or three weeks following the introduction lecture, the students have time to work on their tasks and they attend a dedicated discussion moderation training, in which they practice and discuss different moderations for selected topics.

Prior to each seminar day, all students read the papers and think about questions and/or remarks about the papers, which they upload onto the Moodle platform. These contributions are mandatory, as they help make sure everyone reads the paper, and they provide a valuable input for the presenters to cover specific topics more in depth in their presentations and discussions.

On each seminar day, two groups present their topics, answer content questions, and receive feedback from their peers about the presentation. The subject experts attend these presentations and can help in the question & answer session with their inside knowledge. Subsequently, the class is split into two subgroups (typically 6-12 students) who have their moderated discussions in breakout rooms. For both activities, presentation and discussion, one student is specifically asked to prepare and provide feedback for the presenters/discussion chairs.

On the associated Moodle page, the students find more information on scientific literature, presenting, chairing discussions, as well as giving and receiving feedback.

Lesson Sequence





Sequence of Activities on the Seminar Days

  • 15 minutes         presentation duo A
  • 5 minutes           content questions & answers
  • 5 minutes           feedback
  • 15 minutes         presentation duo B
  • 5 minutes           content questions & answers
  • 5 minutes           feedback


  • 40 minutes        chaired discussion in separated                             groups
  • 10 minutes         self-reflection and feedback

Results, outlook and next steps

For a seminar that is mainly based on scientific literature, the course is highly interactive, and it conveys the high relevance of the field with specific real-world cases. There are many elements that contribute to the overall outcome, many of which may be interesting also for other seminar types. Generally, the course feedback from the students is very positive.

What sets this seminar apart from other read-and-present seminars are the moderated discussions. These discussions strongly increase the interactive nature of the seminar and help students delve into the respective topic and its implications. Some examples from previous years include role plays, debating over pros and cons of methods or implications, discussions about the connection of specific methods and the bigger picture, and evaluating the paper(s) by analyzing specific aspects in spider diagrams. The moderated discussions are creative, relevant to fostering dialogue between scientists and the public, and are a great way to discuss what makes a good study. A prerequisite for fruitful discussions is the establishment of a safe space where students can contribute openly, which leads to self-confidence, the ability to take criticism, and self-empowerment.

We found that the combination of presentation and discussion works very well. Starting with a presentation of the study reminds everyone again about the key findings and the bigger picture. After that, everyone is well prepared for the chaired discussion. Having the subject experts around on that day helps in the discussion, e.g., when method-specific questions arise. Besides the hand-picked literature, the students explicitly appreciated the tutoring by experts who were directly involved in the studies, or who have extra insights into the specific topic.

What also proved to be a beneficial part of the workflow is the assignment to hand in questions about the paper prior to the seminar day. Collecting the questions non-anonymously ensures that everyone comes prepared to the seminar. Furthermore, it improves interaction and enables tailored sequences in the presentations or the moderated discussions where posed questions can be picked up again.

Course Description

Seminar for Bachelor-Students: Biogeochemistry (in German)
Current research topics are presented and discussed based on scientific literature. The students prepare a presentation with the support of an expert. Subsequently, the topics are discussed jointly by students and experts in student-moderated discussion rounds. Presentation and moderation techniques are introduced and trained in the seminar, supported by instructions for constructive feedback.
The seminar aims at introducing the students to current research in the field of biogeochemistry and connecting them with researchers. After the seminar, students are able to …
1. ...understand and critically evaluate original scientific papers and to communicate their findings in a coherent way (presentation); in doing so, they become familiar with different types of publications and relevant journals in the field of biogeochemistry;
2. ...discuss scientific results, plan and chair discussions (moderation);
3. ...give and receive constructive feedback.
Bachelor (5th Semester)
ca. 10-25 students
Mandatory in the fifth semester BSc students environmental sciences, specialization Biogeochemistry
Instruction lectures and seminar
Teaching Power:
Ungraded semester performance: presentation and active participation in the discussion