How to Lead a Discussion Section

Students on couches talking

About Leading Discussion Sections

For all their challenges, discussion sections are for many the most rewarding kind of teaching. You have a relatively small number of students whom you will get to know well; if you are like most TAs or teaching fellows (TFs), there will be many students eager to talk to you when they see you on campus. You will have an enormous potential to influence these students. Students crave intellectually surprising, challenging, and stimulating discussions. If you can successfully impart your own passion while helping students reach their own insights, you will have achieved one of the highest goals of the university. As the years pass, you may even run across students who chose your field because of the great discussions they had in your section.

Most of the skills that you will need for discussion sections are described under How to Lead a Discussion and Classroom Challenges. There you will find suggestions for preparing for a discussion, keeping a discussion going, and improving participation. You can also find suggestions for preparing for your first discussion section under Preparing for the First Class. Here, we focus on some of the concerns common to first-time discussion leaders:

How can I lead a good discussion on the material when I’m not an expert?

Many TAs or TFs, especially TFs in the Thinking Matters program, feel overwhelmed by the breadth of material to be covered in section. They often find themselves going over texts for the first time just a few days before the students do. In other cases, you may be TAing an undergraduate course that you took years ago at a different institution.

Unfortunately, there is no simple remedy for this situation. Your first time TAing a course, you may simply have to do a lot of preparation. Try these tips as well:

  • Talk with your colleagues in the course. Help them in your strong areas while they work with you on theirs. Experienced TAs or TFs can be of particular assistance.
  • Simply attending lecture, even if the professor does not require it of you, will go a long way in preparing you for discussion sections.
  • Discuss with the professor what his or her expectations for the section are. Be clear about the major themes or goals of the course and how these should be reflected in your group’s discussion. Even without being an expert, you will be able to guide the discussion toward the most important ideas.
  • It’s also fine to tell students when you don’t know something (and much better than giving them an incorrect answer!). It’s important for students to recognize that scholars continue to learn all the time. If possible, tell them how you’d go about finding an answer or bring it to the next class.

How do I know if my discussions are going well, and how can I salvage a section that isn’t going well?

Usually student attendance, degree of participation or responsiveness, and even expressions, gestures, or body language will give you some indication. Ask students how the section is going, both informally and formally (e.g., through midquarter evaluations or a small-group evaluation).

You can often transform a flailing section simply by asking students how they think their time could best be used in section. Do not be afraid that by acknowledging the lackluster spirit of a discussion you are showing weakness; instead, use it as a springboard to ask students what they really care about and what it would take to turn up the excitement of the section. Students respond positively to any sign that a TA is willing to take feedback and is interested in helping students to succeed in the course.

Be willing to shake things up a bit if discussion section stagnates over time; for example, if you usually direct the discussion for the full hour, consider having students discuss the material in pairs first.

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