and Discussion Sections
Ryan teaching her University
Seminar, "Russian Humor and Satire,"
in the Pavilion VIII garden.
a discussion can be somewhat like directing actors who step out of character
when the dialogue is sensitive, try to steal the show, experience stage
fright, arrive late for productions, and sometimes neglect to read the
script. Whereas only very experienced (or foolhardy) directors would attempt
such a production on Broadway, discussion leaders (often TAs) can sometimes
find themselves as jittery as actors on an opening night without a dress
rehearsal. If you feel this way, don't despair; here are some ideas to
help make your class a hit. This section offers suggestions for leading
good discussions, with special attention to TA-led discussion sections.
Setting the Stage for Interaction
important aspect of stage setting is relationships, crucial because genuine
dialogue demands that all participants feel comfortable with one another.
While all instructors need to relate to their students, discussion leaders
have a unique opportunity and a greater responsibility to form teacher-student
relationships and encourage student-student relationships. When participants
value, respect, and communicate with one another, they feel free to express
partially formulated ideas and jointly create their own learning experience.
- Names are
of utmost importance. Tell students immediately what you prefer to be
called and something about yourself (see "The First Day of Class").
Encourage students to learn each others' names by devoting part of the
first class to students' introducing each other, making name placards
(use these for as long as you or the class needs them), or playing a
name game in which students identify each other when you're stumped.
Such procedures may seem laborious initially, but they pay off and students
appreciate your effort to know them.
- Work with
students' individual personalities. When students seem interested but
never contribute, ask them privately how you can facilitate their participation.
Some students would rather be called on than force their way into a
conversation. On the other hand, you can ask students who contribute
too much to hold their comments to give others a chance. If students
are prone to posit hasty, poorly conceived conclusions, give them a
chance to correct themselves before class ends. If students speak with
biases, respectfully point out their implicit assumptions; or, better
yet, make it a course goal that all students learn to recognize their
own biases. To make this endeavor non-threatening, identify biases you
bring to the material and invite students to "call you" on
these, should they appear. To really know your students, spend a few
minutes after class recording observed dynamics and interesting interchanges.
These notes will also prove invaluable should you be asked to write
a letter of recommendation (see "Writing Letters of Recommendation").
props also help facilitate discussion. When appropriate, bring historical
documents, photos, ethnic food and costume, a human brain, poll results,
and so on. Your students may become more involved in the topic and will
probably remember better.
- Last, but
before the semester begins, be sure the physical stage is set for dialogue.
When possible, request a room suited to the anticipated enrollment,
with tables or chairs that can be arranged in a semi-circle. At the
very least, everyone should be able to make eye contact with all other
Where You Are Going
good directors, skilled discussion leaders know what they want to accomplish.
Before entering the classroom (and usually in conjunction with the course
lecturer if you are a TA), determine the discussion goals. Purposes vary:
you can clarify and supplement lecture material; students can learn and
practice new skills, propose and critically evaluate positions, gain confidence
in their analytical skills, and/or draw connections between course material
and the outside world. Discussion sections are not normally used to convey
large amounts of new information.
in mind, next decide how you will accomplish them through both course
requirements and your teaching style. If you are a TA leading a section,
you will probably share requirement decisions with the lecturing professor,
although one of you might hold sole responsibility. Distribute the syllabus
the first day, even if the lecturer has included discussion assignments
on the lecture syllabus (see "Preparing a Course").
teaching style characterizes effective discussion leaders, but style does
communicate implicit expectations about amount and type of student participation.
If you are very directive, students may spend more time guessing your
next point than contributing ideas. Conversely, if you are completely
non-directive, anticipate days when important matters are never covered.
Develop a style between these two extremes, closer to the one more congruent
with your course goals. Choose your style before the first meeting, and
define it in the first few weeks. Changing implicit expectations mid-semester
is as frustrating as changing explicit requirements: for example, if you
intend to call on students rather than wait for volunteers, you must do
so from the first days of class.
whatever your teaching style, students need to leave with a few main points.
At the end of class, with students' help, abstract main issues and their
resolution. A class without a synopsis is like a play without the last
scene. Similarly, running out of time and summarizing during the next
class would be like a director stepping on stage before the last scene
and saying, "Sorry, folks, we'll pick up tomorrow night where we
teaching and research as complementary, even symbiotic. Reading recent
scholarship prevents long-known concepts or texts from ever seeming
stale and, more importantly, reminds me of the necessity to be open
to new ideas and to see that a mind can changeas must lesson plans.
Questions and Listening
you need to direct or frame the discussion to reach a predetermined goal.
The type of orchestration you choose depends on your questioning skills
and students' preparation, motivation, and participation (see also "Case
opt for traditional questions (and you should try them), first ask about
concrete facts and theories previously presented in lectures or readings
and then progress to questions requiring more abstract thought. Abstract
questions may involve comparisons between sources, critical analyses of
logic or methodology, alternative explanations, real-world applications,
or the separation of primary and secondary arguments. For example, when
discussing Skinner's typology of behavior, you could develop a progression
of questions something like the following:
is Skinner's main premise?"
does he support this theory?"
what ways are Skinner's ideas similar to Locke's?"
would the adoption of such a theory affect social policy?"
questions or questions with obvious, programmed answers; they bore students,
and their responses do nothing to facilitate subsequent dialogue.
teaching style is one of guiding students' natural curiosity and feeding
it-not with answers, but with more questions. My greatest reward is
the light in the eyes of the students who realize that they just found
a way to answer their own questions.
Guihard, Materials Science
as important as asking the right questions is the way you ask them-and
the way you listen and respond to students' answers. Here are some tips:
- Treat all
students with respect by considering their contributions thoughtfully.
valuable remarks from all students. Rather than reserving the more abstract
questions for the more "insightful," give all students a chance
at the lead. Students soon realize your intent and fulfill your expectations.
reinforce genuine attempts with verbal or facial expressions. When comments
are slightly off the mark, rephrase elements that come close and give
students a chance to agree or disagree. Of course, when comments are
factually incorrect, you must acknowledge this in a polite and non-patronizing
manner. When comments are particularly brilliant, give the other students
time to recognize them as such. Then, as you summarize and draw the
class to a close, recall noteworthy remarks and weave them into your
synopsis, acknowledging the students who made them.
- Be sensitive
to the different ways students use language, and vary your approach
to accommodate all students. Men are more likely to prefer a devil's
advocate approach; in fact, some men feel that an unchallenged comment
must have been unworthy of attention. Some women are more likely to
react negatively to a challenge, and women generally monitor their participation
more. For example, a woman who has made several comments may refrain
from additional involvement, not wanting to dominate the discussion
(Tannen, 1991). Of course, some women enjoy a good debate, and some
men fear it. The point is: using one approach all the time is likely
to be effective with only some of your students. (See also the TRC handbook,
Teaching a Diverse Student Body.)
- Learn to
be comfortable with silence. When students don't have a ready answer,
wait patiently (5-30 seconds depending on the complexity of the question)
before embellishing, rephrasing, or changing your question. You show
that you value students' learning more than their rapid guessing of
your thoughts, and students prize this time to think. At home, practice
posing a question and waiting to see how long half a minute of silence
feels. At first, it will seem exceptionally long, but you will soon
become accustomed to it. (By the way, if your students always have a
ready answer, reevaluate the quality of your questions.)
students to talk to each other, not through you, by holding your rejoinder
until more than one student has spoken. If necessary, say, "Cathy,
would you please respond to Grant's comment," or "What do
you think about Grant's argument?" If Cathy still seems to be talking
to you, orient her toward Grant with head and eye gestures. Such a directive
may feel artificial at first, but students catch on quickly and conversation
flows more realistically.
mutual respect among students by encouraging inclusive language and
the acceptance of people in various racial, religious, gender, and cultural
- If you
have a good sense of humor, use it positively; it is possible to offend
by comments you believe benign.
students' questions appropriately, and acknowledge when you don't know
the answer. For details, see "Resolving Conflicts."
beginning of a class period, I pose questions in order to focus attention,
gauge understanding, reiterate important themes and facts, or to set
up the topic I want to discuss next. If we are formulating a problem,
I ask individual students to offer a suggestion on what to do next.
Johnson, Materials Science
discussion techniques motivate students in different ways. We describe
a few briefly here; for greater detail, see Frederick (1989) and Kraft
time. Ask students to spend several minutes thinking about their
answer and, perhaps, writing it down. Allowing thinking time emphasizes
the importance of the question and gives all students a chance to gather
their thoughts. As a result, students who otherwise are slow to participate
jump early into the ensuing discussion. One variation on this activity,
think-pair-share, encourages students to share and compare answers in
small groups or pairs before discussing them as a whole class (for more
information, see "Further Reading" on cooperative learning).
Divide students into groups, asking them to develop an answer consensually.
In smaller groups, more students can speak, shy students address less
formidable audiences, students can build relationships, and a competitive
group spirit assures lively discussion when the class reassembles. Vary
the way you create groups: ask students to number off, select partners
whom they do not know, pair with classmates wearing the same color clothing,
and so on. As long as you give very clear instructions, you can assign
many types of tasks to groups. Some favorites are:
truth statements. Each group produces three statements known to
be true about a particular issue; for example, "It is true
about slavery that . . ." When students feel already well informed
about an issue, this strategy helps you challenge their assumptions.
the main point of the day's text. Students report on their consensus
and invite response from other groups.
quotes in the text that best illustrate the major premise. Students
read these aloud and defend their selection.
As each student briefly states a salient image, scene, event, or moment
from the text, list them on the board and ask for the connection between
them, the missing link, the emerging theme. With this approach, students
participate in a sort of collective memory-making.
Students formulate the primary questions raised by the text or lecture.
Students might hand them in before class so that you can select some
for discussion; or students can lead the discussion their questions
provoke. Because this latter approach requires more class time, appoint
only a few students to lead each discussion and start early in the semester
so everyone has a chance. You also need to instruct students about leading
discussions and limit time allotted to each question
prepare short reactions to the week's readings or lectures. These can
be the springboard for lively discussions.
Students reenact a scene from a novel, plead their case before a "jury,"
or discuss "in character." Assign characters to volunteers
or by placing placards at students' seats. Students need from several
minutes to a week to study a character before performing
debate or position taking.
Pose an "either/ or" question ("Were the British or the
Americans responsible for Revolutionary War?") and force students
to identify their position by sitting on the side of the room corresponding
to that position. Ask students to change seats if they change their
position. Alternatively, use the seating as a continuum.
With a scientific phenomenon or conclusion on the board, students work
backwards, generating several plausible causal chains.
Nothing Seems to Work
though you are prepared, have sought help from colleagues and/or the TRC,
have tried traditional approaches, nontraditional approaches, and everything
short of a literal song and dance-students 36 don't participate. (Was
it a rainy Monday morning?) The best teachers have classes like this now
and then. Realize that you can't force participation; but if participation
is key to your course, you must uphold your stated requirements. (Note:
If your discussion section doesn't count for a grade, it should; see "Working
the class with a friend or colleague to see if you can spot problems.
For the next classes, prepare students for the assignment in a different
way, or repeat a discussion-leading technique that worked in the past.
Spend ten minutes eliciting students' comments: How effective do they
find the discussions, and what improvements do they suggest? How well
do they understand the readings? What do they think the goals of discussion
sections are? (See "Analyzing and Improving Your Teaching").
most U.Va. students enjoy discussions with leaders excited about the subject
matter and concerned about teaching them as individuals. Similarly, many
instructors find leading discussions very rewarding. So, get out there
and break a leg!
first day of class, I encourage my students to get out of their seats
and move. They cannot just sit at their desks and attempt to learn passively-because
passive learning will not empower them in the rest of their classes
or in their lives more generally. While I believe that the subjects
I teach are important, I know that teaching students how to learn is
far more important.