This article will describe what science and engineering sections typically look like and provide tangible teaching strategies that can be incorporated into sections to enhance student learning and equitable participation. By the end of this article, you will have a flexible and user-friendly toolkit to draw from when planning sections throughout the course.
What is a science or engineering section?
Undergraduate science courses can be large, especially at the introductory level. TAs play an essential role in making such courses effective for students. In lectures, students are typically asked to sit back and listen to content delivered by a professor. In a student's individual section within their course, they will have the opportunity to ask questions, practice skills, and engage directly with the material.
Common formats for sections
Sections in science and engineering courses tend to follow a few common formats:
- In a quantitative class, you use the time to tackle problems with your students
- In a non-quantitative class, your instructor or head TA gives you a slide deck to cover
- In a non-quantitative class, the content you cover in a section is left totally up to you
In this module, you will gain tools that can help you handle each of these section formats.
Connecting with students
During section, you’ll have the chance to build individual relationships with your students. As a TA, you will be your students’ first point of contact if they have questions or need help. Making sure to learn your students’ names and make yourself available to them can help ensure they feel comfortable coming to you.
Balancing your workload
It is important to establish boundaries with students, to protect your own time and mental health. To learn more about setting boundaries in the classroom, please refer to the Promoting Mental Health and Well-Being in Learning Spaces module.
Use active learning strategies to engage students
Active learning is any form of instruction in which students are actively participating in learning activities, as opposed to the traditional lecture format in which students are passively receiving information. They may be engaging with a partner or small group, with the entire class, or even independently in a variety of activities, such as:
- Expressing a thought or question verbally or in writing.
- Solving a problem set.
- Presenting a figure from a paper.
- Drawing a diagram.
- Responding to a poll.
- Filling out a worksheet.
Active learning improves student success and equity
Educational research has demonstrated the benefits of active learning. In one meta-analysis, students performed better in undergraduate STEM classes with active learning components compared to lecture-only classrooms (Freeman et al. 2014). Another meta-analysis found that STEM courses with high-intensity active learning components have smaller differences in performance and passing rates between students from historically underrepresented and non-underrepresented groups (Theobald et al. 2020).
Use a variety of active learning strategies
While the term section may bring to mind classroom-wide verbal discussions, active learning during sections can take many other forms, such as the ones suggested above. We encourage instructors to aim for a variety of active learning formats, as different students may learn and express themselves best in different ways (e.g. verbal vs. written, in groups vs. individually).
Four quick and flexible active learning techniques to get started
If you are more familiar with lecture-based classrooms, active learning may initially sound complicated or time-consuming to implement. However, many instructors find that their lesson planning becomes easier and more focused after learning a few different active learning strategies. Here, we will highlight four strategies that are quick and easy to implement, as well as adaptable to a wide variety of classroom formats (Tanner 2013).
Multiple hands, multiple voices
After asking a question, the instructor asks for multiple volunteers before anyone has responded (e.g. “I’d like to see at least three hands from anyone who wants to share their thoughts”). If needed, the instructor can modify the question or ask students to discuss their ideas in pairs before asking for volunteers again. This strategy makes it more likely that a larger pool of students will share their thoughts and allows instructors to call on students who participate less frequently.
After asking a question, the instructor waits at least three to five seconds before posing a follow-up question or answering the question themselves. It can help to pause to take a sip of water. On average, instructors wait only one-and-a-half seconds after asking a question. Extending the wait time to about three to five seconds can make more students feel willing to volunteer to respond.
Students spend about a minute thinking about a question on their own. Then, they talk with another student to compare ideas. Finally, the instructor asks a few individual students to share out some key points from their pair discussion with the whole class. This strategy simultaneously gives students sufficient time to formulate their thoughts and promotes cooperation among classmates.
Structured reporting from small groups
Before initiating a small-group activity, the instructor pre-assigns certain students to be reporters, who will report back on behalf of their group, based on a random criterion like the person whose birthday is coming up soonest. All students get the chance to participate—the randomized assignment gives students who might not naturally volunteer on their own the chance to share their ideas.
Applying active learning strategies for science and engineering sections
The active learning strategies listed above can be used in almost any classroom. Here are some specific ideas about how to deploy them in science and engineering sections.
If your instructor gives you a slide deck for each section, you may not have enough flexibility for something like small-group work, but active learning can happen quickly too. Focus on techniques like wait time, and multiple hands multiple voices.
In an open-ended section, consider the skills you want students to have by the end of your section time. Looking at their assignments or exams might help you define these goals. Then, design active learning activities, potentially using the strategies above, to help students achieve those goals.
For a section in a problem-solving course, use a variety of different techniques to get students to solve problems—independent writing or work time for simpler problems, think-pair-share for ones that are a bit more complex, and extended group work time for the trickiest ones.
These are just general ideas for how you might incorporate active learning into your sections—there are many other ways to do it. But hopefully these ideas can help you get started on planning and executing your sections if you are feeling stuck.
Additional active learning strategies
The strategies we have highlighted above are ones that Stanford TAs have found particularly effective in the past. But there are many, many more ways to craft an equitable and effective learning environment.
- What is active learning?
- Teaching Feedback and Consultation Services
- 21 Strategies that Structure Learning Environments and Promote Fairness
Tanner, Kimberley. “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE Life Sci Educ. 2013 Fall; 12(3): 322–33.
Freeman, Scott, et al. "Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 23, 2014, pp. 8410-8415, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.
Theobald, Elli J., et al. "Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 12, 2020, pp. 6476-6483, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.