Roundtable/Seminar Pedagogy


Research suggests that “round-table” or seminar approach pedagogy is a successful learning technique for Native students (Rhodes 1988) and first generation college students, in general (NISOD 2009). The characteristics of the round-table approach fits well with many Native students whose traditional life ways are based on collectivist, rather than individualistic values (Suttles 1960; 1974). This is in contrast to the lecture-style approach which remains a dominant teaching style in main-stream educational instutitions (Rhodes 1988). Experience at NWIC indicates that it is possible to cover the same materials through meaningful round-table discussions rather than lecture-style teaching, even in entry-level courses.

This approach also has the added benefit of engaging students in critical thinking, which is important as our students explore concepts of “multiple ways of knowing” in multi-cultural education (Deloria 1990). In many ways, this style represents a talking circle style discussion, in which every student has an opportunity to participate through speaking and listening to their peers.

In addition, this shift naturally fosters the incorporation of Native material into the content — a goal central to the mission of NWIC. By bringing the course content to the table and soliciting feedback through guided conversation, the incorporation of Native issues comes in to the classroom discussion effortlessly and through the voice of the students. This shift, in turn, mitigates the need for the teacher to be the “expert” of the cultural content in the course — something that is unrealistic in a multi-cultural setting, as described in the quote below:

You cannot, and need not, be an expert on the aspects of different cultures represented in your class, but you should be sensitive to the fact there are differences and that such differences must be treated respectfully. (VU 2010)

In short, adapting to a round-table style holds numerous benefits:

1) the less formal setting puts the student at ease, encourages greater participation and fosters trust between students and faculty;

2) the students learn from each other; they become the “experts” in their own field and are able to link their own experiences to the curriculum. This grounding of material helps students retain information;

3) this style provides the flexibility to respond to “teachable moments” such as current events that link to curriculum;

4) students remain engaged throughout the class periods, as there is less opportunity to “check out” in a round-table setting;

5) this approach resonates with many of our students who are familiar with (and comfortable with) talking circles;

6) this approach fits with a collectivism framework – in which the class progresses as a whole – which is a common governance style for Coast Salish communities.


Building Trust

Physically moving the tables around to form a round-table, where students feel that they are on equal footing with the rest of the class and with the instructor has proven to foster dialogue and trust between students and between students and instructor. This round-table approach provides the opportunity for students to speak with their peers and build on ideas in class. This setting allows students and instructors to pick up on subtle questions that are often lost in a lecture-style environment.

Flexibility and Teachable Moments

This style falls under the umbrella of “active learning” which educational theorists have long linked to greater retention of ideas (Bruner 1961). More recently, theorists suggests that the need not necessairily be “behaviurally active” rather being “cognitively active” promotes higher learning in the classroom. From my experience teaching an entry-level biology course in this manner, I have found that students come to class more prepared, and bring in extra material such as newspaper articles, that builds on the course content, and are, generally, more engaged in the class. The ability for students to link course material to “real-world” issues generally promotes retention (Gersten and Baker 19).

Cultural Content

It is generally recognized in education studies that teachers need to be responsive to how students “learn to learn” at home so that they make sure the “work contexts and social interaction requirements of the classroom” are “made compatible with work contexts and social relationships in the culture” (Jordan, 1984: 62). Given this, the round-table approach fits well with the collectivist framework, in which cooperation for the greater good of the community is a cultural value. This plays out in the classroom as students particularly from Coast Salish communities, genuinely, work toward the greater good of the classroom in which they literally and figuratively are “all in this together”.

“Higher education accreditation requirements push tribal colleges to follow traditional patterns, while teacher certification requirements of both public and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools reinforce that trend. But research in Native education in particular and minority education in general indicates these institutions should develop unique programs to meet the special needs of Native students.” (Reyhner and Gabbard )

Round Table and ITV

This style is also possible using ITV. The camera can be set up so that the television and camera is at the end of the table. The off-site students mirror the set up of the round-table on their end, thus creating a virtual round-table. The same effects can be experienced with the off-site students, particularly if the instructor actively encourages and guides cross-dialogue between sites. After a couple of prompts for discussion between sites and students begin to develop a rapport with each other (and trust), communication happens effortlessly.

First Generation Students and Retention

The roundtable approach is an effective strategy for teaching first-generation college students. The National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD 2009) promotes this more informal teaching approach as a way for students to feel more comfortable in the classroom. For first generation college students, creating a learning-conducive environment can be crucial for overcoming barriers associated with first-generation college students. This is particularly important for first year courses where students are becoming “imprinted” on the college experience. Ironically, seminar-type discussions are generally reserved for third or fourth year courses. As a smaller community college, with exceptional teacher-student ratios, NWIC has the flexibility to include seminar-style courses in introductory courses. Research suggests that engaging the students in this rewarding and thought-provoking learning style early on in their educational career, will have the added benefit of increasing retention (NISOD 2009).


Bruner, J. S. 1961. The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review 31 (1): 21–32.

Cummins, J. 1992. The empowerment of Indian students. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Teaching American Indian students (pp. 3-12). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Deloria, Jr., V. 1990. Traditional education in a modern world. Winds of Change, 5 (1): 13, 16-18.

Mayer, R. 2004. “Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction”. American Psychologist 59 (1): 14–19

NISOD (National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development). 2009. Teaching First-Generation College Students. NISOD 21(22).

Reyhner, Jon and Gabbard, David. 1993. A Specialized Knowledge Base for Teaching American Indian and Alaska Native Students. Tribal College Journal. 4 (4): 26-32.

Rhodes. R.W. 1988.. Holistic Teaching and Native American Studies. Journal of American Indian Education. 27 (2): 21-29.

Suttles, W. 1960. Affinal ties, subsistence, and prestige among the Coast Salish.” American Anthropologist 62: 296–305.

—. 1974. Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians; the Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits. New York: Garland Pub. Inc.,

WVU. 2010. Strategies for Teaching Science to Native American Students:

Submitted by Emma Norman, April 2010

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