Teaching a Discussion Section
Discussion sections in which the classroom has a smaller number of students can be quite fulfilling and fruitful to both teachers and students. These types of classes require rigorous preparation, as you must account for multiple variables that are out of your control: the level of student interest and enthusiasm, the balance between student and teacher participation in a discussion, and the actual length of time an activity will take, among others. Having a plan of action that can guide you during all class meetings will be invaluable to you and will allow you to maintain control of the classroom environment. Here are some of our tips:
It’s important to develop a plan for the class meeting beforehand. This plan can include a set of discussion questions, a designed group activity, or a photocopied passage or set of problems to hand out to your students to complete. Think about what skill you’d like for your students to learn during the course of the class meeting and design activities for them to complete that aim at developing that skill. Try to focus on one or two particular skills for each class meeting. If you try to accomplish too much during one class meeting, you will confuse your students and possibly run out of time.
It is always better to have too much planned than not enough. You can always postpone an activity for the next class meeting if you run out of time for it, or you could entirely cut it out of your lesson plan. This is much easier than having 15 minutes left in the class period. Students expect to learn when they come to class, so if you are consistently releasing them from class early, they may appreciate it in that moment, but their opportunities to learn from you are greatly decreased.
Have a Plan B
Sometimes lesson plans don’t go as expected. For example, an activity that you had allotted 45 minutes for may only take 15. It’s smart to have some go-to activities that you can employ in any situation when the need arises. Some ideas for spare time include informal assessments for your students to get a sense of what they learned from the activity. Another idea is to have your students spend the spare time working on their next assignment that is due. You can sit at the front of the classroom and set up “mini conferences” in which your students can come chat with you about their progress during the actual class period. It is extremely helpful for students to articulate their ideas to you as frequently as possible and with as little pressure as possible.
Think Outside of Discussion
- Just because we’ve been considering what to do in a discussion section does not mean all of your activities have to be relegated to discussion. A discussion section does not always have to be about you doing the leading. Students learn best when they are fully engaged in a variety of learning modes: reading, writing, discussing, and teaching. Think of ways in which you can target more than one of these during each class meeting. Here are some suggestions:
- Student Presentations: Anytime a student has to teach something to a group or the rest of the class, she is enhancing her own understanding of the topic. Having students give multiple informal presentations throughout the semester can be helpful to their overall learning in your course. One way in which you can do this is by hosting symposiums at various times throughout the semester. During a symposium, a student might give a brief PowerPoint presentation to the class about her current progress on a class paper or project. The symposium ends with students giving feedback and asking questions. You can also have your students give more formal presentations for a grade once they start honing the skills asked of them when presenting in front of others.
- Group Work: Group work does not necessarily have to mean discussing in small circles. Groups can be divided by interests, writing topics, or any other way you see fit. These groups can bring in drafts to share and critique (peer review), they can be assigned a specific research topic for the day that they will, as a group, present about at the end of the class meeting, or groups can work through problems together. Sometimes competition between the groups can be a healthy way to motivate students.
- Creative Response: It’s important to remember that each of your students will exhibit different learning styles. By giving students the option of creative responses, you allow those more creatively inclined and perhaps shy to speak in class to shine. These can take a variety of forms: a student can build a physical model of a lesson’s concept, write a photo essay, or even create a video that makes an argument about a topic that has been discussed in class. Often times, students will come up with their own creative response ideas that you would have never even thought of before. It’s important to be clear about how you will be grading these creative responses so that your students understand your expectations for this type of assessment.
- Active Learning Strategies: There are some specific active learning strategies that you can employ in the classroom if discussion wanes or you’re looking to keep your students enthusiastic about your subject. To learn about these, see Emad Mansour’s presentation, “Engaging Students in Learning,” about active learning.
“Teaching Discussion Sections” from UC Berkeley
Last modified: March 8, 2017