First Year: The Small Classes at U of T

You’ve just received your offer of admission from the University of Toronto. Congrats! While you may feel excited and hopeful now, there’s still time for you to encounter the dread and anxiety experienced by most students about to start university. You might even be missing high school already. Never fear! U of T knows just how to handle this – let me introduce to you… the seminar course.


I see you.

Seminar courses are small-size classes that allow students to develop the necessary skills  for university by means of interaction and discussion. They are designed around a funky topic that the professor is highly knowledgeable about, but classes are usually loosely structured so that, due to the amount of discussion in a seminar course, they are tailored to the students’ strengths and interests. A list for the 2011-2012 seminars and the Vic Pathway seminars can be obtained here and here, respectively.  As a newly-admitted Victoria College student, taking a seminar course (a 199 half or full year course or a Vic Pathway seminar) is necessary to fulfill the first year small class requirement. Note: not all colleges have this requirement. However, I highly recommend that first year students enroll in a seminar course, regardless of what college they’re a part of.  The seminar I enrolled in was XBC199Y: Roll over Beethoven – Music, Media, and the Marketplace.

Not only do seminar courses give students an opportunity to develop personal relationships with their peers and professor, but most seminar courses are designed to have a lighter course load in comparison to other first year courses to prevent first years from feel overwhelmed by too much work. There is also the added plus which appeals to just about every student – most seminars do not have a final exam.

Every first year student here at U of T is bound to take one or more enormous class comprising of well over 500 students, and often over 1000. Seminar classes have the intimate environment of a high school class where students can interact and participate. In a seminar class, a significant proportion of the student’s mark will usually be based on their classroom participation. This can be a refreshing change from bigger classes, where it is virtually impossible to have class discussions. My seminar was structured so that, each week, a small group of students gave a presentation on a chapter from the reading package, which would then be followed by a discussion. This allowed me to hone and refine my presentation skills. Several of the more interesting topics led to heated arguments among us that lasted the entire class! Not to mention, a lot of time was shamelessly spent talking about Justin Bieber. No one in the class did own up to be a fan, which is probably why the singer was the base of our jokes almost every week.

The environment of a seminar course is very different from regular lecture-style classes. Seminar courses give students an opportunity to make friends easily as students see each other every week, as opposed to in bigger classes where you may meet someone and never see them again due to the sheer size of the class. There is also the  benefit of being able to get to know your professor. While many professors in large classes make an effort to provide office hours, seminar courses provide an opportunity to connect with the professor in a way that is not possible in a large class. I can praise Professor Brock MacDonald for hours for the effort he put in to enrich my class. Seminar courses allow students to get the personal guidance from professors we all seek, and the professor actually knows your name – a feat almost impossible to achieve in freshman year with classes in Con Hall. Most students in my class developed an established relationship with our professor. Seminar courses give students the opportunity to have a relationship with their professor not only for the duration of the class, but also for the future. My professor was kind enough to act as a reference for me for a leadership position I applied to on campus. This is imperative for many senior students who need references for jobs or graduate school and do not personally know any of their past professors. Seminars give first year students the opportunity to establish key faculty contacts early in their undergrad career.

Seminars provide the advantages of a high mark (wouldn’t you love that 4.0?), a cool professor, and a small class with familiar fellow students. A large number of first year students fail to utilize this great tool provided by the university to better their first year experience. So, first years, go ahead and enroll in a seminar course! I guarantee you will not fall asleep during this class.


6 Replies to “First Year: The Small Classes at U of T”

  1. Even though I’m not a Victoria College student, I took a Vic Pathway seminar (VIC103Y, Ideas and Fine Thoughts) during my first year and adored it. It was basically a book club run by Professor David Cook, the Principal of Victoria College. I would highly recommend any class he teaches to anyone – he’s brilliant, and his way of explaining things is so unique and refreshing.
    You’re totally right in saying that these classes allow you to to establish personal relationships with your peers and prof. I definitely plan on keeping in contact with Professor Cook!
    I’m so happy that someone wrote an article about seminar courses. They often get overlooked, but my first year was significantly better because of mine. I’m glad you liked yours too! 🙂

  2. Honestly I had a VERY different experience with first year seminars. I was originally looking forward to taking one in a subject that I was interested in (an entire course dedicated to Pride and Prejudice for example!) but I decided it would be more useful to use the relaxed structure of the seminar to fulfill my breadth requirement in life science. As a result, I took a seminar in something I had no interest in, thinking it would be the only way I could possibly get a good mark in that unfamiliar subject category. I needed the credit to come from somewhere.

    Well that turned out to be a horrible idea. The content of the seminar was so dull that I found myself loathing the very thought of going to class. I was surrounded by about 25 other visibly uncomfortable arts students who struggled valiantly to stay awake. But considering it was a friday morning class, most failed to do so. I also found that the prof had very high expectations, and even though I tried my best, I got my lowest first year mark in this course.

    I’ve heard horror stories from friends who have taken math related seminars in order to fulfill the breadth requirement. The prof assured the class that it was not a serious math course, and he understood if students did not know anything about the material. Apparently only a few weeks later he was telling the class that they should all be skilled in calculus. Most of the people I know got poor marks in their seminars because they took them in subjects they had not studied before, all to get the BR credit.

    I don’t mean to say you’re wrong about seminars though and I agree with all of the benefits you have identified in this article. The small class sizes are a huge plus at a school like U of T. I should point out, that with 5 full year courses, my seminar was the only one where I actually met my prof. I only write this as a warning to incoming students: if you’re going to take a seminar, make sure it’s about something you’re actually interested in! If you do that, I have no doubt that your seminar will have a very positive impact on your first year experience!

    PS. I think we should get rid of the breadth requirement. It’s silly to make students study something they don’t care about and will never use. I successfully got my life science credit, but I didn’t learn a thing about life science in the process…

  3. I actually fell asleep a LOT during my 1st year seminar class. But that’s because I’m always dead tired, not because the class was boring. I’d say my 1st year seminar class (I believe it was called Economic Sustainability) was actually one of the most interesting, out of all my classes throughout UofT. I learned about game theory, Prisoner’s dilemma, sustainability…. and how our Earth could possibly be not sustainable, given how we’re treating it!

  4. I took a first year seminar class because I had to (Vic student), and although it looked really interesting, I didn’t end up liking it at all. I’m annoyed that I wasted my only chance for a seminar class on the course that I was told to take, but my friends in Vic One and in some of the other seminar classes insisted that it was a great experience.

    After signing up for my second year classes on ROSI, I have discovered that UofT does not get better in second year. In fact, I have more Con Hall classes this year than I did last year. Thanks a lot U of T for hating science students. Anyways, I was wondering if there were any options for second year students who want to take seminar classes?

  5. I am in my second year now, and last year I took CCR199 seminar about Lord of the Rings (oh don’t even start with NERD comments)… it was the best thing that I enountered at UofT (besides blogUT ofcourse :P). I don’t know if it is offered this year but I am definitely going to encourage first years to take seminar courses, but only if you are interested in the subject matter. They can the a drag otherwise!!

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