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Discussion Sections

DISCUSSION SECTIONS (1)

Discussion sections can take a number of forms. In the Math Department the hour may be used to go over problems; in Literature class, to critique essays or books, and in Sociology, to clarify and enhance concepts introduced in the lecture. Whatever the particular function of your section you will want your students to be actively involved and participating. The guidelines below are intended to help you accomplish this goal.

PLANNING A DISCUSSION SECTION

Some new TAs wonder how there can possibly be enough to say to fill the class period. This will be the least of your worries. Your job is facilitating and moderating the discussion, not doing all the discussing. New TAs sometimes tend to over-manage the situation. Remember that the discussion isn't just a matter of your communication with your students; it's a chance for your students to share ideas and pool resources. Many TAs overlook this potential and end up trying to carry the whole conversation themselves.

One of the reasons discussion sometimes seems ineffective or disorganized is that different students are focused on different aspects of the topic or problem. As a consequence, students are often frustrated by what they see as irrelevant comments by other students. R. F. Maier (2) describes a problem-solving discussion technique, "developmental discussion", which can be used to keep students aware of the aspect of a discussion that is the current focus. While all topics are not amenable to this developmental treatment, many discussion leaders will find this technique useful. Such a developmental sequence might be:

1. Formulating the problem/defining the issue,
2. Suggesting hypotheses/reasons,
3. Getting relevant data, and
4. Evaluating alternative solutions, consequences, and implications.

Keeping this sequence in your mind will allow you a large amount of flexibility in the classroom without the fear that your section will degenerate into a disorganized free-for-all. At the very least keep a note card handy with salient points you want discussed during the hour.

IMPLEMENTING DISCUSSION SECTIONS

Expectations

Before you can successfully implement a discussion session, you will need to become aware of the implicit set of attitudes and messages you bring into the classroom with you. Your reactions, your responses to students, the attitudes you project in your actions-all suggest to your students the sort of interaction they can expect. The way in which you field students' comments will give the most important clue. No one wants to feel that their remark will be put down or put off. Students are also sensitive to what they think you REALLY want (e.g., Does he want a discussion or a chance for an extended monologue? Does she say she wants disagreement and then gets defensive when someone challenges her?). Your students will try to read you so that they can respond appropriately. Be sensitive to the clues you give them.

Questioning Skills

There are a number of techniques you can use in opening up discussion. The most obvious is to draw on students' questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. What do you do if the subject matter is new and your students are too? You may want to jot down several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

When you start a discussion with a question, ask open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies-rather than merely the basic facts. You've probably often heard a professor who spiels off a list of questions that require only brief factual replies and little student involvement:

Q. When was the Battle of Hastings?
A. 1066.

The result could hardly be called a discussion. You'll want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are valued as well as welcomed.

Here are the three biggest mistakes made in asking questions.

Mistake #1

Phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, "I know something you don't know and you'll look stupid if you don't guess right!" (A sure turn-off.)

Mistake #2

Phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the class. Don't just show off your 25 cent words-discussion questions need to be phrased as problems that are meaningful to student and instructor alike.

Mistake #3

Not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think. The issue of "WAIT-TIME" is an often-ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety IN THE INSTRUCTOR. Try counting to 10 s-l-o-w-l-y after asking a provocative question to which you are just dying to respond yourself. Students don't like a silent classroom either. Once they have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, they will participate more freely.

Roadblocks to Facilitating Good Discussion Sections

Roadblocks are usually the "too much, too little, too late" variety. The following are some common stumbling blocks.

1. IF YOU HABITUALLY CAN'T GET DISCUSSION STARTED, you first need to pay more attention to the types of topics you're picking; they may not be broad enough. Or you may not be using good questioning skills-putting people on the spot or embarrassing them. See the previous section(s) on questioning techniques.
2. IF ONE OR TWO STUDENTS CONSISTENTLY MONOPOLIZE THE FLOOR there are many causes at work, but the end result is a great deal of tension. You don't want to reject the one student, but then you don't want to alienate the rest of the class. You may want to take one of two approaches. Either you can use their comments to throw the discussion back to the class ("You've raised a point. Maybe others would like to comment."), or you can acknowledge the comments and offer another outlet ("Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class.").
3. IF THERE IS A LULL IN THE DISCUSSION, relax. This doesn't mean you've failed. Every conversation needs a chance to catch its breath. It may mean that your topic is exhausted or it may be a pause for people to digest what they've heard. If the lull comes too frequently, though, you may need to give more attention to the types of topics you're picking. You may also be inadvertently shutting down discussion by dominating rather than facilitating.
4. IF STUDENTS ARE TALKING ONLY TO YOU INSTEAD OF TO EACH OTHER, you are probably focusing too intently on the speaker. You can help students talk to each other by leading with your eyes or looking occasionally at others in the room. This will lead the speaker to do likewise.
5. IF THERE ARE STUDENTS WHO SELDOM OR NEVER TALK, see if you can't find out whether they are shy, confused, or simply turned off. Watch for clues that indicate they might want to speak up. ("Allen, you seem disturbed by Dan's idea. What do you think?") However, be careful that you don't embarrass a student into participating. You may want to make a point of talking to this student before or after class to indicate your interest.
6. IF A FIGHT BREAKS OUT OVER AN ISSUE, then you've got a hot topic on your hands! Facilitate! Your major task here is to keep the argument focused on the issues. Don't let it become personal, under any circumstances.

EVALUATING WHAT YOU'VE DONE

At various points in the quarter, you'll want to assess how well you and your students are doing with the discussion section. Some suggestions follow for evaluating your section.

Informally

  • As we've said before, ask questions designed to monitor student understanding of major concepts in the class. This is a way to casually assess student progress with course objectives.
  • Watch for student reactions to your discussion section. Take a quick count of the number of heads on desks vs. the number still raised in the air.

More formally

  • If reasonable, administer short, weekly quizzes designed to monitor student understanding of the previous week's material.
  • Conduct midterms/finals (see "Testing and the TA").
  • FOR YOUR BENEFIT, give mid-quarter/end-of-quarter evaluations. Also, consider videotaping your sections and viewing your tape with a video consultant from the TA Development Program (see "Evaluating Your Own Success").

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