I’m not sure who originally thought “recitation” would be a good descriptor for college-level discussion sections, but it seems high time to abandon the term. After all, we don’t want to give enrolling students the impression that they’ll be expected to attend lecture two days a week and recite lecture the third day. No, our expectations for them in these discussion sections – and for ourselves as instructors – are much higher than that. We want our students to come to discussion sections prepared to, well, actively discuss. The discussion section should be a time for students to receive more individualized attention to their learning needs. It should be a time set aside for refining and honing each student’s understanding of the major concepts, themes, and ideas presented in lecture and the connections between lecture and course readings. It’s a time for both the instructor and the students to think on their feet. Therefore active discussion – not a mere parroting of lecture – is central to any successful discussion section.
I certainly don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about the best pedagogical methods for discussion sections, and I welcome any and all comments on the subjects (especially recommended readings and helpful teaching resources). But I have learned a few things from the three semesters I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a t.a. assignment that includes the teaching of discussion sections as one of my central responsibilities. And last semester at least one of my students anonymously nominated me to receive an award from UNL’s Teaching Council and Parents’ Association for making a “significant contribution to their lives at UNL.” This was a great honor, one that solidified for me the notion that discussion sections offer unique opportunities for reaching students – on both an educational and a personal level. Discussion sections are a space in which we, as instructors, have the opportunity to make an enormous impact on students’ college experiences. Below I’ve outlined some of the major lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience teaching discussion sections, including some things I changed just from last semester to this one.
- Come to discussion each and every week organized, prepared, and with several specific goals in mind. Set the tone for your discussion sections from day one. If you arrive disorganized and unprepared and your questions seem unfocused or disjointed your students will (understandably) take this as a sign that you aren’t serious about the work they are being asked to undertake in discussion. This negative impact on the students’ perceptions of discussion sections will sour the classroom climate and, although this can be corrected with time, you’ll lose precious teaching ground in the process. So consider using the very first day of discussion – when students are still “course shopping” – to explain what purpose the discussion sections serve for the course as a whole, what they will be expected to do each week in order to be successful (including what it means to actively participate), how participation will factor into their overall grade, and what role YOU serve in your capacity as their t.a. Dress professionally, provide an overview of your teaching philosophy, gradually let them get to know you a bit as a person, and be consistent and clear in your plans for each week.
- Be your best self. I’m interested in becoming a professor because I’m invested in both research AND teaching. I believe I have a responsibility to pass on what I learn not just about history but about professionalism, navigating the structures of academia, understanding diverse perspectives, media and digital literacy, and an array of other skills that will be beneficial to my students beyond the discussion section or course I am teaching. Because the best teachers I know are also mentors, I strive to be both for my students. If you aren’t interested in teaching your students will notice and it will impact their expectations not only of you, but of themselves and of the course as a whole. So begin each teaching day by asking yourself what’s important to you about teaching, share your teaching philosophy with your students, and work hard to be the best version of yourself that you can – especially when you are in front of your students. Even if you only had three hours of sleep, are having a really bad day, have oodles of other work on your mind, make a concerted effort to be in the teaching moment. Of course there will be some students who, for a variety of reasons, will be beyond your reach but if you give your students your best and let them know you genuinely care how they perform (and notice when they don’t), you might be surprised at the effort they’ll put forth.
- Seek to engage, not entertain. Many students, though certainly not all, will arrive with a desire or an expectation to sit and be passively entertained. This can be particularly true for freshmen, who are still learning what a college education means and what the college experience is all about. Naturally one of your primary tasks on day one (see above) is to divest them of this expectation for entertainment. Discussion is not lecture and education is about engagement, not entertainment. This doesn’t mean you can’t be entertaining as a means of promoting engagement, but you must walk a careful line. For example, I like to think I have a good sense of humor, and I think that sharing this sense of humor with students can be beneficial in certain situations. At its best, humor is a tool that can help establish connections between people. Revealing your sense of humor, if you have one and it’s good, can show your students that you are more than just an instructor: you are an actual human being, you have a personality, and you can relate to many of the experiences of your fellow human beings. Inserting a bit of humor every now and then, especially if the discussion for the week is a bit grueling or students are stressed about an upcoming paper or exam for example, can be a way to promote a healthy classroom atmosphere. Too much humor, however, and your students will become rambunctious and distracted. And bad humor, like any form of unprofessional behavior, will spell far worse for both you and your students (hence my use of italics above for emphasis and warning). Using humor to promote engagement means entering a balancing act that demands constant monitoring, plenty of skill in classroom and self-management, and a good deal of instinct and common sense to move effectively from one teaching situation to the next. Don’t enter into the task lightly.
- Require the students to take a turn leading discussion in small teams of 2-3. This is one of my strongest recommendations for discussion sections, particularly those offered at the freshmen level. Requiring the students to take a turn leading discussion helps alleviate a degree of the passivity some students enter the course expecting to get away with. Thinking on your feet is hard work and a vital skill. Active discussion provides one opportunity for students to learn to voice their ideas and arguments orally, in response to changing circumstances and contradictory viewpoints, but leading discussion is when I see most students really get a grasp on what’s involved in and important about this skill. Allowing them to lead with teammates hopefully diminishes any nervousness or intimidation they feel at the prospect of leading their classmates, plus it forces them to be responsible to one another and collaborate to come up with discussion questions. This does not, however, mean the instructor is “off duty” and can simply kick back come class time. The students need to be provided with very specific instructions on how to effectively lead discussion, what their responsibilities are, whether the discussion questions they’ve come up with are true discussion questions and connect to the larger themes of the course, and they need to know that their instructor will be there to help guide them and interject when necessary. I outline my plans for discussion leadership during the first week of classes, allow my students to choose their own date for leading discussion, provide them with tips for leading discussion (which I post on Blackboard as a permanent course document available throughout the entire semester), explain and warn against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, and I require them to submit their proposed discussion questions and a “plan of action” to me in advance so that I can provide them with feedback. Most students do an excellent job leading discussion and supporting their fellow students by participating in active discussion regularly. I believe they also emerge from the course with a greater understanding of ways to effectively collaborate and communicate their ideas to others.
I hope you found some of this post useful and repeat my invitation for comments and recommendations for readings on pedagogy and teaching resources.
*Please note that, due to my upcoming comprehensive exams, this will likely be my last blog post until at least Friday, March 29th (after the written portion of my exams is completed). I have a few more blog posts on the brain, especially on the subject of pedagogy and mentoring, but precious little time to compose them. I completed this post in transit – on a couple of bus trips to and from campus. I may be able to do the same for another post sometime before the end of March, but unfortunately cannot make any promises…