7 Years Later Excerpt #2: Leading Discussion Sections

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By Trevor Hedberg

In the last entry, I discussed how to handle grade inquiries. This time around, I consider how to lead discussion sections — one of the other core responsibilities of a typical teaching assistant.

As a teaching assistant, one of your central responsibilities will usually be leading 1-3 discussion sections each week of the semester. Typically, you’ll have 20-30 students in each section, and they will last 50 minutes, but there is some variance across institutions. So what exactly do you do to lead a discussion section? To some extent, it will depend on the instructor. In some instances, the instructor wanted me to cover some new material during these discussion sections; in other cases, I was told to just get the students talking and not worry about presenting any new course content. Sometimes, I was asked to administer quizzes or conduct assignments; sometimes, I didn’t have to do that.

The one key aspect of a discussion section is that you are supposed to get the students to discuss aspects of the course content. This might seem pretty basic, but you may not receive much direct instruction on how to get the students talking productively. (Some faculty members seem to think that graduate students will just figure it out.) Moreover, if a discussion section is not going well – that is, if the students aren’t talking – then it can get very uncomfortable very quickly. Additionally, if students feel like discussion sections are boring or pointless, their disengagement will get more pronounced as the semester progresses. That’s an outcome you obviously want to avoid, so here are some pointers on having good discussion sections:

Always present a bit of material to the students – even if it is not required. You might think that you can just come to class with a list of prepared questions about the week’s material, ask the students those questions, and see where the conversation goes. That might work sometimes, but it’s unreliable. Some students will not have done the assigned readings for the week, and some students probably missed at least one of the week’s lectures. That means a large portion of students may not be familiar enough with the material to respond to your questions productively. Thus, you should always present a little material to the students, even if it is only a few of some of the key ideas or themes that were already covered in the week’s main lectures.
Don’t base all your questions on the reading material. Echoing an important point above, you cannot assume that everyone in class (or even most of the students in class) will have read and understood the assigned reading for the week. If you want to dig into a key idea from the reading, make sure you review this material with the students first. But in addition to that, make sure you have a few general questions on tap that students can respond to even if they have not read one word of the assigned reading.
Use thought experiments. Students tend to respond well to thought experiments – the trolley problem, the experience machine, Mary the colorblind neuroscientist, the prisoner’s dilemma, and so on. While there’s a legitimate debate to be had about the usefulness of thought experiments as support for premises in philosophical arguments, they remain effective pedagogical tools for getting students to reflect on philosophical problems. If you can identify a thought experiment that’s relevant to what you’re covering, consider using it 
Use real-world examples. Many students, especially in introductory level courses that they are taking to fulfill a general education requirement, struggle to see the relevance of philosophy to everyday life. You can diminish that skepticism by basing your discussion in part on real-world cases that illustrate the key concepts for that week’s course material. This strategy may be easier to employ in ethics courses (since ethical dilemmas manifest in the real world frequently), but if you’re creative and willing to do some digging online, you may be surprised what you can find.
Use videos. Students nowadays read less frequently than students from several decades ago but consume far more visual media. A short, relevant video to get discussion rolling can be effective, especially with the wealth of free, easy-to-browse videos available on YouTube.
Don’t allow only a few students to dominate discussion. Some students will obviously be more prone to participate in discussion than others, but you don’t want your discussion section of 30 students to consist of you talking exclusively with only a handful of them. If you have trouble getting others to participate, consider having them work in groups or write down an answer to a prompted question at the start of class. Some students will be more comfortable participating when they have written remarks they can read or otherwise use to form their answer.
Get to know your students. Your discussion sections will usually be small: 20-25 students. Find a way to learn your students’ names – either via the creation of a seating chart, sheer memorization, or some other method. Part of making these discussion sections go well involves crafting a relationship with your students so that they are more willing to participate. Also be willing to talk to them before class officially starts. Be polite, and be approachable.

There are certainly other techniques that could be employed, but these are my starter strategies. Do you all have any others that graduate teaching assistants should employ?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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