Discussion Sections Problem Set and Laboratory Sections

Discussion Sections

An ideal discussion section makes each student feel like a vital part of the intellectual fabric of the class. Participation should be expected and your guidance of the discussion should be subtle and responsive to students' ideas. Poor discussions are characterized by an inflexible agenda and heavy-handed control, domination by a few students, boredom by the rest, and a feeling that the class is sinking and can only be saved by the teacher's lecturing. They seldom reach a goal.

Discussions are not ideal for delivering information; this is the function of lectures. Discussions are, however, an extremely efficient means for students to learn skills, generate ideas, solve problems, consolidate knowledge, criticize arguments, develop insight, and gain confidence in handling new concepts. Good discussions also allow students to formulate the principles of the subject in their own words.

How do you prepare to lead a discussion? First think about the material in light of your students' knowledge and experience. Second, think of questions that will stimulate them to think about the topics at hand in new and significant ways. Third, set objectives and share them with your students. Do you want your students to apply new skills, explore the significance of scholars' different points of view, learn to analyze the arguments in secondary sources, or become motivated to do research?

A Taxonomy of Questions

There are many types of questions you can use to guide discussion. The following is one taxonomy that may help you. (For more on this topic, see C. Roland Christensen, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, available at the Bok Center, Science Center 318.)

  • Open-ended (What are your reactions to the story? What aspects of this case were most interesting to you?)
  • Information-seeking (What was the gross national product of France last year? In what year was photography invented?)
  • Diagnostic (What is your analysis of the problem? What conclusions did you draw from this data?)
  • Challenging and testing (Why do you believe that? What arguments might there be to counter that view?)
  • Eliciting action (What would you do in order to implement the government's plan?)
  • Interrogating priority and sequence (Which of the two things you've mentioned is more relevant to Faulkner's narrative form? Given the state's limited resources, what is the first step to be taken?)
  • Asking for predictions (What will be the result of a heavy increase in lobbying against this proposed legislation?)
  • Hypothetical (What might have happened if Elizabeth I had remained in power for ten more years? In what ways would this play be different if it was set in the American South?)
  • Extrapolating (What implications might this observation about early childhood development have for how we see adolescents?)
  • Inter-relational (How might your observations relate to what Jane said about Hindu belief structures?)
  • Generalizing (Based on your study of the computer and telecommunications industries, what do you consider to be the major forces that enhance technological innovation?)
  • Asking for summary (What two or three key lessons have we learned about how cognitive biases affect human judgment?)
  • Discussion Leading as Fishing with a Net

    Discussion leading is often compared to fishing with a net. Cast out a broad question to see what you get and then pull in the net, sorting out what is valuable. This approach provides you with the opportunity to summarize the discussion and to pick up and emphasize the important points. Here are some suggestions to help you do so:

  • Start with broad, open questions. Begin the class by asking which of the study questions students found most provocative or most difficult to answer, and generate an agenda based on their perceptions of, or difficulties with, the material.
  • Once you have ideas to work with, you can follow up on as many leads as seem useful or relevant to the aims of the section.
  • Take notes on what students say (listing the most important points on the board, if you wish) and use them to refer back to their contributions. Call students by name; they will be gratified to hear that you think their ideas are important.
  • Discussion as Polite Conversation

    One professor who teaches in the Core stresses the important social functions of discussion sections. She describes them as "one of the last bastions of the art of polite conversation," noting that a teaching fellow's duty is not only to be a knowledgeable scholar but also to host a purposeful conversation.

    How, then, does one interrupt politely? Praise a valuable contribution? Ensure that various points of view are heard? Encourage reticent students? Save the discussion from domination by a few overly talkative students? Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not think that you have to fill every silence. Rather, look for someone who is obviously thinking, who might want to speak but seems hesitant, and ask if he or she has something to add.
  • Leave sufficient time for students to consider a question before repeating it, rephrasing it, or adding further information. Take up to 15 seconds, which may seem long, but the silence will encourage students to jump in.
  • Rephrase students' questions and partial answers and direct them back to the students. This can keep students talking to each other and salvage a discussion that is turning into a question-and-answer session with the teacher.
  • Stimulate discussion with relevant examples such as poll results, historical documents, pictures, anthropological artifacts, etc.
  • Science discussions may take a less discursive form than humanities classes. In science sections, monitor the pace of your students' learning by asking frequent questions and actively engaging them to assess their level of comprehension. Then adjust the pace of the discussion session to suit the level of the class. If the material has been covered previously in lecture, review concepts that may be making it difficult for students to follow the discussion.
  • Divide a large section into smaller groups that will focus on a specific question or topic from a list. You can then visit each group. Leave some time for the class to reassemble so that the groups can report to each other and you can tie up loose ends.
  • Take an occasional peek at your students' notes in order to assess whether the emphasis that you are trying to impart is being received in a reasonable form, but try to respect their privacy.
  • Challenge students in introductory courses to separate the important issues from secondary ones. Choosing important ideas and discussing their implications is often the most effective use of the hour.
  • Ending a discussion with "I'm sorry, but that's all the time we have today" is usually insufficient. As teachers, we should keep an eye on the clock and leave time at the end of section to provide a summary of the discussion that emphasizes important points, acknowledges the insightful comments students have made and provides a framework for the next week's discussion.
  • Preparing Students for Discussion Sections

    Here are a few ways to encourage students to take some responsibility for the discussion:

  • Clearly identify discussion questions in advance. Hand out or e-mail to students two or three discussion questions before class so they can prepare. Allow each student to become the "expert" on some aspect of the discussion.
  • Ask students to write a short paragraph or two on a specific topic to prepare for discussion. Look at the responses ahead of time so that you know whom to call on. You can do this by having students e-mail their comments to you or by having them post to the course website ahead of time.
  • Develop a joint agenda. Tell students that you will ask them to suggest topics for discussion before each class (you may want to begin the list with a few topics of your own). Have the group pick the ones they want to discuss or the ones they found most provocative or difficult.
  • Ask students to take a position on a text or an argument. Students can also pair up or divide into small groups to present different sides in a debate.
  • Encourage study groups. Explain the virtues of collaborative work and exchanges of information. In many courses, it is appropriate for students to study together, even as they pursue independent efforts.
  • You may want to contact students who miss a class before the next meeting to encourage attendance and let them know what they missed. Or you may simply make it clear early in the term that students who miss a section should take responsibility for finding out what they missed and how to prepare for the next meeting.

    Problem Sets and Pre-Labs

    As you begin teaching in a science or problem set based course, it is important to clarify with your course head what topics will be covered and the depth of understanding required of the students. It is essential that you attend course lectures. Professors typically approach material idiosyncratically, so it is important that you know know first-hand how the course topics are being handled. The following are general suggestions for running problem set and pre-lab sections:

  • Early in each section, determine what problems students are having with the course material.
  • Prepare examples that illustrate the problem-solving techniques they will need to employ on their homework and exams. Test your perceptions by asking students what questions they have about problem sets, labs, or lectures. You might note these questions on the board and combine them with your own prepared agenda. This shared agenda-setting process will help target each class.
  • Ask questions of your students to find out whether they are having difficulty with the material. If you lapse into lecturing for too long, you can lose touch with this.
  • Encourage students to answer each others' questions, and be careful not to do all the talking.
  • When teaching a section that is part of a large lecture course, you generally have about 45 minutes to review material that has been covered in two or three one-hour lectures. You will want to challenge students to think for themselves about the topics and issues raised by the course, but need to limit discussions accordingly. There will always be much to cover, so you should avoid unnecessary digressions. You might respond briefly to a divergent question and invite the student to pursue the topic further in office hours. You might explain that the topic is a good one but too complicated at the moment. If the question will be relevant at a later point in the course, say so and follow up on it at the appropriate time. Try not to cut off students without giving a brief explanation.
  • Teaching Labs

    The following tips will help you make the most of the limited time for each section, run your lab smoothly, and maximize what your students learn.

  • Point out interesting historical aspects of the experiments when possible. For example, you might note, "Galileo did this experiment using only his pulse for a time-piece and a cathedral lantern for a pendulum."
  • Pre-test a lab yourself with the equipment your students will be using, as there is no guarantee that experiments will proceed as described in the manual. Identify problems and tricky procedures that might ruin the experiments or waste time.
  • Try having your students prepare an outline or a flow chart of the lab's procedures before coming into lab. If they hand these in, you will be sure that they have done basic preparation for the day's work.
  • Lab rules need to be clearly laid out and strictly enforced for safety reasons. Encourage students to be alert but relaxed. Remind them of relevant safety instructions and related safety equipment. Demonstrate procedures that require extra caution or involve special techniques.
  • Plan ahead for emergencies. Know the location and use of fire extinguishers, emergency eye-washes, and spill cleanup equipment. Insist that students use gloves, goggles, and lab coats to protect themselves from chemical splashes or burns. Know the hazards of chemicals they will be using, and the required waste handling procedures.
  • Be thoroughly familiar with the principles behind each experiment. Tell your students what they must learn from each lab, review the underlying significance of the laboratory exercise, and be prepared to answer their questions. Labs provide an opportunity for students to make solid connections between abstract principles and physical reality.
  • Ask strategic questions. For example, "Which vessel contains the afferent blood and which the efferent?" or "Once you plot these points on your graph, how are you going to find the best straight line through them?'' or "Why do they tell you to make measurements with the current going both ways through the coil?''
  • Team effort characterizes much of scientific work, so start teaching the ethics and responsibilities of teamwork to your students now. Encourage them to help each other.
  • Be sure to circulate among the students and be aware of what they are doing. This is where some of the most interesting teaching takes place.
  • If a student asks you a good question, you might resist the temptation to answer it yourself. Rather, turn it around by acknowledging that the question is a good one, and guide the student to the answer by breaking it down into steps that he or she can manage. Other students are often able to provide insightful answers to questions if they see your answer as being too technical or confusing.
  • Begin and end your labs punctually. Be strict about this, especially at the beginning of the term. There is a lot to accomplish in each lab section, and students also need to leave on time to meet their other commitments.
  • Indicate the techniques and procedures that are most likely to produce spurious data so that students can take extra care in those areas and not waste time with common mistakes. Similarly, remind them which techniques need not be executed with meticulous detail for a particular experiment.
  • After completing an experiment, relate it to current research and ask students to think about how it relates to larger, more basic scientific questions.
  • Try to reconvene as a class once or twice during the lab to go over important ideas. Have students tell you what they found. If their results are different from what you expected, encourage them to reflect on the plausibility of their findings. Get them to generalize from their data to see the concept or principle underlying the lab.
  • Finally, be sure your students all have equal access (and sightlines) to lab equipment and experiments.