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Handling Classroom Disruptions
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Leading Discussions in the Humanities & Social Sciences for TAs

Strategies to encourage student participation in discussion sections in the humanities and social sciences.

This article is intended for TAs leading discussion sections in the humanities and social sciences. It describes how to structure sections, and discussions specifically, to encourage student participation.

Create an environment where students feel comfortable participating

Before you can expect students to participate in discussions, it is important to create an environment where students feel comfortable doing so. Creating and maintaining an environment where students feel comfortable participating in discussions is an ongoing process. 

Use students’ names and pronouns

Referring to students by their correctly pronounced names and preferred pronouns can signal to students that you value their presence in the classroom. Ask students to introduce themselves on the first day of class, and do your best to memorize their names, including the correct pronunciation, and pronouns. Student names, as well as  pronunciations or pronouns if students have specified them, are also available on Canvas course rosters. 

Set norms

Norms, or collective understandings of expected behavior, can be especially helpful for discussions on potentially sensitive topics. Establish classroom norms, expectations, and boundaries by collectively formulating and agreeing to norms at the beginning of a course or discussion. 

For example, one popular norm is a collective agreement that everyone participates but also that they stay mindful of dominating the conversation and let others participate. This norm is often referred to as “Take space, make space”. 

Provide a variety of structured opportunities for participation

Providing a variety of activities ensures that all students have opportunities to learn and participate, since different students may prefer to learn and participate in different ways. For example, using a combination of live polls, small group activities, and text chats offers a variety of ways for students to participate (e.g., verbal versus written, small group versus whole class, anonymous versus public). 

Leading a discussion

Given an environment where students feel comfortable participating, you might invite students to participate in a number of ways, including through discussion. 

Align questions with the learning goals

What discussion questions to ask depends on the learning goals of the section. 

Ask discussion questions of increasing difficulty

Start a discussion by asking easier questions, such as comprehension questions or descriptive questions (e.g., “What does this diagram depict?”, “What colors are in this painting?”). Since these questions are low-stakes and require only a minimum expected level of engagement with the topic, such questions can break the ice and warm up students for further discussion. 

Starting with comprehension questions can help you identify points of confusion or misunderstanding among the students, and make sure everyone is on common ground before moving on to higher-level discussion. Easier questions can also serve as a natural transition to a higher-level discussion (e.g., difficulty in understanding how an author advances from one claim to the next may suggest a weakness in the author’s argument). 

More challenging questions may ask students to:

  • compare and contrast concepts (e.g. relate a concept, text, or framework to a previous concept, text, or framework)
  • apply a concept to a specific context (e.g., apply a concept to their own experiences)
  • evaluate a claim (e.g., evaluate how well the evidence fits a claim, identify assumptions, or consider how a text reflects its social context)
  • propose new ideas (e.g., suggest how a claim might be tested, or imagine a design for a new product). 

Bloom’s taxonomy of learning-related verbs provides an approximate guideline for the difficulty of a question (e.g., “define” is easier than “analyze”, which is easier than “design”)

Pose effective questions

The most effective questions are succinct, focused, and clear. Such questions allow students to comprehend and remember what is being asked. In addition, open-ended questions, as opposed to leading questions or yes or no questions, invite students to consider a variety of responses and engage in a deeper level of thought. 

Give students time to respond

After asking a question, let any silence sit, at the very minimum for five full seconds, so that students have adequate time to think and respond. 

Instructors often report that silences feel long and excruciating, but this phenomenon is often more of an impression on the instructor’s side than the students’ side. When an instructor asks a question, while the instructors may merely have to wait or perhaps hold a few possible responses in mind, students have to: process the question, assess what is being asked, recall relevant information, formulate possible ideas, select an idea, formulate a verbal or written response, gather their courage, and physically act to respond (e.g., raise a hand, type a response). Interjecting prematurely can cause students to feel a sense of disappointment or frustration that they were not as fast or capable as they believe is expected. 

Responding to student contributions

When a student contributes to the discussion, engage in active listening (e.g., nod, make eye contact) and verbally acknowledge their contribution (e.g., by summarizing, or referring back to their contribution using the student’s name). 

If the student’s comments are unclear, you may want to ask a follow-up question to ask the student to clarify, or you may want to highlight and rephrase something that they mentioned that is of interest. 

You may follow up by inviting other students to respond to the student’s contribution, inviting other students to also join in on the discussion question, or asking another question to everyone. Or, if it feels natural to the discussion, let the students organically respond to each other. 

As discussion unfolds, monitor who is participating and who might be left out. You might consider inviting students who have not yet participated to contribute (e.g., “I would love to hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet”). 

Integrate discussion into section planning

Principles of section planning

Before the course begins, identify the goals of the discussion section with the course instructor. Discuss with the instructors what the role of the discussion section is with respect to the lecture or other course components. 

First, identify learning goals for each week’s discussion section, perhaps in coordination with any other course components (e.g., lecture, assignments). Then, design activities and discussions to help students reach those learning goals. You may also want to identify any administrative tasks that need to be addressed during the section.

For the first section, make sure to have everyone introduce themselves, and collectively set and agree to norms for the classroom with the students. 

For all sections, it is helpful to incorporate a variety of activities to facilitate student participation and engagement. For discussion activities, formulate easier discussion questions and harder discussion questions aimed at the learning goals of the section. When planning a section, plan to split time between you doing things or talking and students doing things or talking, so that you do not dominate section time and students can be actively engaged. 

A sample lesson plan

Below is an example lesson plan for a 50 minute discussion section. This is only one example; please design your own lesson plans to suit your own learning goals and teaching contexts. 

Note that this lesson plan features a mix between you doing things and students doing things in a variety of activities. The lesson plan builds in two minutes of buffer time, as it is common for activities to take longer than you plan for. 

An example 50 minute discussion section

DurationActivityInstructorsStudents
7 minIntro Activity & Goals/AgendaConnect student responses to today's topic. Introduce today's goals and agenda. As class starts, think/jot down responses to a question on the board, then share.
10 minMini LectureShare slides, handouts, or videos for mini lecture. 
3 minComprehension CheckAddress any confusion.Ask students a comprehension question via anonymous PollEverywhere poll.
15 minSmall Group Activity Students discuss a few analysis questions in small groups. Students take collaborative notes or collaborate on a product (e.g., poster-size post-it on wall, Google Doc/Jamboard).
10 minFull Group DiscussionBuild on student comments and raise questions for discussion.Students discuss. A student from each group reports the group's discussion back to everyone.
3 minWrap Up & RemindersSummarize the discussion, link back to today's topics/goals. Adminstrative reminders, upcoming deadlines. 
2 minBuffer Time  

Adapted from Engaging Students: Whiteboard, Screen Annotation, Polling, Chat, and Breakout Session, Technology Help, University of Minnesota


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