Contrary to what they’re called, many discussion sections do not, well, have discussions.
The fifty-minute block of time usually consists of a teaching assistant talking through problems on the board or giving an addendum to a previous lecture to a room full of weary students.
TAs should try to avoid emulating lectures in discussion sections, and instead make better use of the intimate environment by engaging students in group activities and peer discussions. This interactivity would make the material more understandable and encourage students to participate.
UCLA introduced discussion sections in 1967 to provide students with a more intimate learning experience to help them grasp material through student-faculty discussions. However, to many students’ dismay, discussion sections oftentimes just become another lecture.
For example, in many discussion sections, TAs simply rehash concepts taught in lecture without directly addressing individual students. Only a fraction of students attend the sections, and the TA’s sparse questions are usually met with blank stares and uncomfortable silence.
TAs can solve this problem by facilitating more group activities during discussion. Helping students get to know each other early in the quarter can help those afraid to speak up feel more comfortable participating.
According to a study conducted by the College of Basic Education in Kuwait, students better understand course materials when instructors initiate group interaction in small classroom settings. Nearly 78 percent of students who participated in the study said they preferred working in small groups, because they felt more motivated, gave more attention to the work at hand, made new friendships and enjoyed the class more overall.
Angeli Indran, first-year psychology student, said she performs better in her classes when TAs initiate conversation between classmates and give them the chance to solve problems in groups.
This isn’t to say that discussion sections are useless. Indran said she couldn’t have done well in her general education cluster had she not attended her discussion section. But there’s a reason for that: GE clusters are year-long courses that include two-hour weekly discussion sections. These rigorous, seminar-style sections require participation and involve one-on-one conversations with students.
Of course, mandatory participation can at times force students to speak solely for the sake of participation points, which can make such contributions unproductive and meaningless.
Monica Lee, a TA in the life science department, said she doesn’t think participation must be mandatory to engage students. Instead, she said she believes TAs could incite student participation through techniques she uses in her sections, such as group worksheets, calling students by name and even giving students candy when they answer questions – a way of incentivizing students that some professors, such as adjunct computer science professor Carey Nachenberg, make use of.
Besides, TAs could more naturally engage students by directing them to work in smaller groups first and then reconvene to discuss the material as a class, allowing them to see their peers’ perspective on the material and learn different methods of approaching problems.
This also benefits TAs, who could evaluate these group discussions to identify concepts the class is collectively struggling with and tailor lessons accordingly.
UCLA actually encourages TAs to implement these methods through the Office of Instructional Development’s TA training website. In fact, an entire page is devoted to improving classroom interaction.
Of course, UCLA does require TAs to complete training programs where they learn various techniques to better engage students in discussion sections. But, it’s quite clear to students that these techniques are not widely implemented. And while theory and computation-heavy classes may not seem conducive to more interactive discussion sections, reintroducing concepts taught in lecture doesn’t make full use of the intimate discussion environment.
The responsibility certainly rests within the student to attend class and participate, but encouraging the less-inclined to speak up through group activities and addressing students by name raises the standards of the class by creating a healthy incentive to participate. And better engaging these students forces them to readily grapple with the concepts covered in lecture – a recipe for better learning.
But if TAs don’t engage students, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that students would rather trade discussion sections for an extra hour of sleep.