10 Leading Discussion Sections

Preparing for Discussions

Discussions differ from lectures in many ways. A major difference is that the students can be more active and that there can be more personal contact. Good discussions give students an opportunity to formulate principles in their own words and to suggest applications of these principles; they help students become aware of and define problems implied in readings or lectures; they can also increase students’ sensitivity to other points of view and alternative explanations. (Adapted with permission: Unruh, 1986)

Some new instructors may wonder how there can possibly be enough to say to fill the class period. This will be the least of your worries. Your job is facilitating and moderating the discussion, not doing all the discussing. New instructors sometimes tend to over-manage the situation. Remember that the discussion isn’t just a matter of communication with your students; it’s a chance for your students to share ideas and pool resources. Many discussion leaders overlook this potential and end up trying to carry the whole conversation themselves. (Adapted with permission: Ronkowski, 1986)

There seems to be an unfortunate misunderstanding about the amount of preparation that discussions require. Too many instructors assume that you can “just walk in” to the classroom and begin useful discussion. It is as if they feel that, with a basic understanding of the subject, they can rely upon their students for 40 or 50 minutes. However, a good discussion takes a great deal of prior planning and review of the subject matter. To begin with, the content itself must be reviewed and brought up to date; that is why keeping up in one’s field is so very important. Inevitably in a discussion, a question about present applicability or trends, etc., will be raised, and at that point you can be of great help if you are able to relate what is being discussed to the most recent events or developments in the field. It is also helpful to be knowledgeable about the backgrounds and interests of your students. This is why student information and background sheets and get-acquainted sessions at the beginning of the term are useful.

Prior planning also enables you to anticipate the kinds of questions that will emerge during the discussion. In this way, you can provide more appropriate and helpful sorts of answers to those questions. You can also consider how the questions might be referred to other students, thereby helping them to reinforce their understanding. (Adapted with permission: Northeastern, 1984)

Before the session meets, decide what kind of discussion is most useful for your class. Is there a certain topic to be discussed? Does the group have to reach a conclusion or come to an agreement? Is there subject matter that must be learned? Is the class a forum for expressing and comparing views? Is it important that the students carefully analyze the topic or that they learn certain skills? Once you have decided what kind of discussion you want, tell the students. It is easier for everyone if the goals for the class have been clearly stated. (Adapted with permission: Unruh, 1986)

Implementing Discussions

Adapted with permission from Ronkowski, 1986

Before you can successfully implement a discussion session, you will need to become aware of the implicit set of attitudes and messages you bring into the classroom with you. Your reactions, your responses to students, the attitudes you project in your actions — all suggest to your students the sort of interaction they can expect. The way in which you field students’ comments will give the most important clue. No one wants to feel that their remark will be put down or put off. Students are also sensitive to what they think you really want (e.g., Does he want a discussion or a chance for an extended monologue? Does she say she wants disagreement but then gets defensive when someone challenges her?). Your students will try to read you so that they can respond appropriately. Be sensitive to the clues you give them.

There are a number of techniques you can use in opening up discussion. The most obvious is to draw upon students’ questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. Because students may not ask questions, you may want to write several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

When you start a discussion with questions, ask open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies — rather than merely the basic facts. You’ve probably often heard a speaker read off a list of questions that require only brief factual replies and little student involvement:

Q. When was the Battle of Hastings?

A. 1066.

The result could hardly be called a discussion. You’ll want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are valued as well as welcomed.

Some behaviors to avoid when asking questions are:

  1. Phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, “I know something you don’t and you’ll look stupid if you don’t guess right!”
  2. Phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the class. Don’t just show off your 25-cent words — discussion questions need to be phrased as problems that are meaningful to student and instructor alike.
  3. Not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think. The issue of “wait time” is an often ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you’re not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety for the instructor. Try counting to ten slowly after asking a provocative question to which you are just dying to respond yourself. Students don’t like a silent classroom either. Once they have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, they will participate more freely.

If you have not done so already, you may want to read the sections on “Questioning in the Classroom” and “Discussion Starters” in the “lecture” section of this document.

Maintaining Control over Discussion

To speak of “controlling” a discussion may be misleading since in this setting what you are really doing is relinquishing control over the learning process to your students.

Running a discussion skillfully requires creating a context of “organized spontaneity” in which “the good discussion leader gives the students opportunities and incentives to express themselves and develop skills within the otherwise somewhat passive context of the lecture course.” (Segerstrale, 1982) One of the keys to facilitating a discussion is to guide its course without appearing to do so. Here is a list of some common difficulties instructors encounter in leading discussions which relate to the problem of “control,” and some suggestions for overcoming them. (McKeachie, 1978)

  • If you habitually can’t get discussion started, you first need to pay more attention to the topics you’re picking; they may not be broad enough. Or perhaps you are not using good questioning skills. If students feel “put in the spotlight” or embarrassed, they may not feel comfortable enough for free discussion. (See the previous sections on questioning techniques.)
  • If one or two students consistently monopolize the floor, there are many causes at work, but the end result is a great deal of tension. You don’t want to reject the one student, but then you don’t want to alienate the rest of the class. You may want to take one of two approaches. Either you can use their comments to throw the discussion back to the class. (“You’ve raised an important point. Maybe others would like to comment.”) Or you can acknowledge the comments and offer another outlet. “Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class.”)
  • If there is a lull in the discussion, relax. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Every conversation needs a chance to catch its breath. It may mean that your topic is exhausted or it may be a pause for people to digest what they’ve heard. If the lull comes too frequently, though, you may need to give more attention to the types of topics you’re picking. You may also be inadvertently shutting down discussion by dominating rather than facilitating.
  • If students are talking only to you instead of to each other, you are probably focusing too intently on the speaker. You can help students talk to each other by leading with your eyes, looking occasionally at others in the room. This will lead the speaker to do likewise.
  • If there are students who seldom or never talk, see if you can find out whether they are shy, confused, or simply turned off. Watch for clues that indicate that they might want to speak up (“Alan, you seem disturbed by Dan’s idea. What do you think?”). However, be careful that you don’t embarrass a student into participating. You may want to make a point of talking to this student before or after class to indicate your interest.
  • If you run out of material before the end of class, ask your students if there are other topics they might be interested in discussing. If not, let them go early. Don’t keep them the whole hour just for form’s sake.
  • If a fight breaks out over an issue, then you’ve got a hot topic on your hands! Facilitate! Your major task here is to keep the argument focused on the issues. Don’t let it turn personal under any circumstances.

Leading Discussion of a Case Analysis

In several academic disciplines, the use of case analysis is common practice in the classroom. Business, law, political science, and other studies often involve the assignment of a “case study.” This case depicts a series of “real-world” events and facts, usually from the perspective of an organization, which must be analyzed by students. Should you be involved in leading case analyses as a teaching assistant, it is appropriate to discuss case-study discussion methods with a faculty member experienced in leading such discussions.

Leading this discussion requires the full involvement of the students. The discussion leader does not lecture, recount facts, or draw conclusions, but rather uses techniques to draw out the analysis, conclusions, and recommendations from the students. Encouraging students to discuss or debate case issues among themselves, leading them by suggestion or inquiry, are commonly used techniques as well. Writing key facts or information on the board as the students discuss the case also aids in directing the discussion. The more prepared you are as the discussion leader, the more adept you can be at focusing the discussion, bringing in key issues, and relating these to course objectives.

Encouraging Attendance in Discussion Sections

TAs are often concerned about how to encourage students to attend discussion sections. Despite the fact that section participation is a requirement for many introductory courses, students may believe that their attendance is not mandatory since the TA rather than the professor is in charge. Therefore, you may want to devise a way to structure required assignments, projects or presentations into your sections so that section participation will be a part of the final course grade. If students know that the TA has some responsibility for determining their grades, he or she will have considerably more authority in the classroom or in any interactions with students. They will also be more likely to attend sections or lectures led by the TA.

Resources on Conducting Classroom Discussions

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991) Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Ed.

Brookfield, S. D. (1990). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

Christensen, C. R., et al. (1991). Education for judgment: The artistry of discussion leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Eble, K. E. (1988). The craft of teaching: A guide to mastering the professor’s art (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bassy, Publishers.

Erickson, B. L., & Strommer, D. W. (1991). Teaching college freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Lowman, J. (1990). Mastering the techniques of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

McKeachie, W. J. (1994). Teaching tips: strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (9th ed.). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

Nilson, L. B. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Boston, MA: Anker.

Silberman, M., & Auerbach, C. (1990). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

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UF TA Handbook by John Jordi; Genavie Cueman; and Jennifer K. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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