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UIC TA Handbook - Meaningful Discussion Sessions

By Diann Porter

Former Teaching Assistant, Mathematics
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Introduction: A Note From a Fifth Year TA

I am always excited on the first day of class when I meet my students for the first time. I will be spending a lot of time with these people, so I want that time to be meaningful for all of us. Therefore, the process of forming a class personality or character is too important for me to leave entirely to chance. I want my students to be clear about how the class will function, what they can expect from me, and what I expect from them. So this section contains a few paragraphs about group dynamics and your contract with the students.

What is the role of the discussion session? It is tempting to answer that I want to impart knowledge to the students. But that role is more appropriate to the lecture. I think the goal of most discussions is to give students time to practice thinking for themselves. So you will find a section below on helping students think.

I do not believe that there is one right way to conduct a discussion. My discussion session is influenced by my style and personal perspective as a teaching assistant, on the personality of the students and on the day's topic, among other factors. So this section includes a palette of techniques from which to choose to achieve good discussions. Some of these techniques I use regularly, some I keep meaning to try (but others say they work). Most of these ideas are unashamedly borrowed from others. Part of the fun of teaching is trying new techniques to see what works in which situation, then adapting and refining techniques as I become more experienced at teaching.

Every semester, each section you are assigned to teach develops its own personality. In spite of your best efforts, you may sometimes encounter an uninterested and unresponsive, or even hostile class. In my experience, this has been the exception rather than the rule.

Graduate school is a time in which we develop our skills as teachers. As such, leading discussion sections is an important tool for us. For many of us, prospective employers will want to know how successful we were, how adapt­ able we were to the needs of our students, what elements are important in our teaching style, and what philosophy of teaching we have developed over our graduate school career. I hope that you will judiciously experiment with the ideas presented in this section to gradually develop your unique style and philosophy of teaching. Equally as important, the point of many of the techniques suggested here is to encourage you to create a participatory class­ room in which students develop their abilities to reason analytically and to express well-developed ideas in a professional manner.

Group Dynamics

From the first day of class, you want to establish a healthy group dynamic. It is the responsibility of the teaching assistant in charge of a discussion session to create an environment in which students can express their views freely and participate with each other in a learning process. The cornerstone upon which to build a healthy group dynamic is respect. It is ultimately the responsibility of the individual student to learn the course material. Acting out of this understanding communicates to the students that you respect them as individuals.

Consider talking to the students about respect at the start of the first discussion session. If you demonstrate respect for their contributions during this initial discussion, they, in turn, will respect the contributions of the other students. It's important to make clear that it is not permitted to ridicule the opinions of another student. Not everyone must agree with another's opinions, but opinions should be challenged in a professional and respectful manner.

One of the most difficult tasks in establishing a healthy group dynamic is getting students to talk freely. An atmosphere of respect is vital to this. Also important is that you counter the student's image of teacher as "Person-Who­ Knows-It All" (or at least should know it all). Students need to know that they can discuss difficult questions without courting the TA's displeasure.  If the TA listens to each person's contribution and then passes judgment on it, most students eventually learn to participate in the discussion as little as possible. The TA may then find him or herself lecturing to the class in a kind of "Guardian-of-the­ Truth" role.

In essence, you establish a contract with your class by establishing what your responsibilities are as discussion leader and what students' responsibilities are as discussion participants.

TA Responsibilities as Discussion Leader

  • Create an atmosphere conductive to friendly inquiry.
  • Push the intellectual level of the discussions. Expect excellence, but build from what the students know, what you think they should know.
  • Have a plan for the discussion session. Know your material and be prepared with facilitating techniques to enhance student participation.

Responsibilities of Discussion Participants

The Center for Teaching and Learning of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests the following guidelines for discussion. Consider sharing these, or your own version, with your students on the first day of class.

  • Everyone in class has both a right and a responsibility to participate in discussions, and, if called upon, should try to respond.
  • Always listen carefully, with an open mind to the contributions of others.
  • Ask for clarification when you don't understand a point someone has made.
  • If you challenge others' ideas, do so with factual evidence and appropriate logic.
  • If others challenge your ideas, be willing to change your mind if they demonstrate errors in your logic or use of the facts.
  • Don't introduce irrelevant issues into the discussion.
  • If others have made a point with which you agree, don't bother repeating it (unless you have something important to add.)
  • Try to be efficient in your discourse; make your points and then yield the floor to others.
  • Above all, avoid ridicule and try to respect the beliefs of others, even if they differ from yours.

Helping Students Think

As learners, we typically begin a new topic with limited information, a single point of view, a dominant ideology that informs the content of our thought, and a sense that we are probably intuitively right and only need more sup­ ports for what we believe. Class discussions, by pooling these simplicities, quickly disrupts them . . . . But there is no learning without this muddle.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette
                                   The Art and Craft of Teaching

Much of a typical student's class time is spent in lectures, taking notes. She or he is concerned with understanding what the lecturer is saying and writing down the key points to recite them later, usually for an exam. The student does not have time to reflect on the material, to analyze it for him or herself and to form conclusions or opinions. In essence, he or she is a passive learner in the lecture situation. Students become comfortable with this mode of learning, and even come to expect that nothing further should be required, apart from passing exams.

Of course, lectures are good ways to impart basic concepts and facts about a discipline. In most disciplines, however, what is most valued is not knowledge of these basic facts and concepts, but the way in which they are used -- a mode of thinking and inquiry. What a Calculus TA is looking for in a student is not how good a technician he is with standard calculus problems. The TA is looking for signs that the student is thinking like a mathematician.

The role that group discussion plays is to help students learn how to think, for example, like mathematicians, philosophers, biologists, or historians. They should know how key concepts were developed or discovered, how research is done, and why certain ideas are so important. As a graduate student in your discipline, you are a role model of success to your students. They can benefit from your experience as they develop the methods of thought of your discipline.

Reaching a reasonable conclusion is not, therefore, the only goal of a group discussion. At least as important is the process of analyzing issues, seeing relationships between a problem under consideration and the key concepts of the subject, transferring the understanding gained from one problem to the one being discussed, and using the ideas from more than one person to reach the best possible conclusions.

Well-developed analytical and thinking skills will serve students long after they leave the university. These skills are valued in society in general. As their teaching assistant, you are helping students develop skills that will help them for the rest of their lives; you are helping students think.

...memory is affected by how deeply we process new knowledge. Simply listening to or repeating something is likely to store it in such a way that we have difficulty finding it when we want to remember it. If we elaborate our learning by thinking about its relationship to other things we know or by talking about it --explaining, summarizing, or questioning -- we are more likely to remember it when we need to use it later.
Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers

Palette of Techniques

It may appear that some people are born discussion leaders and others are not. But a full palette of techniques is as valuable an asset to a discussion leader as a bit of charisma.

Almost any technique will work when devised in a spirit of respect for learners -- respect for their individuality, their need for support and encouragement, the place of their peers in their education, and the importance of their own sense of responsibility for their learning.
                                                          Forest Hansen Professor of Philosophy Lake Forest College

  • Learn your students' names as early as possible. This is both a courtesy and a help to discussion. You can refer back to someone 's comments if you know their name. Let students know what they should call you. Are you comfortable with them using your first name, preferred name, or would you prefer to be called Mr. or Ms. So-and-So?
  • Consider the arrangement of the room. Rows of chairs acing the front will encourage students to talk to you instead of to each other. Try arranging the seating in a circle or square. Visit the room before the semester starts so you can make your room arrangement plan. If you are assigned to a room with fixed desks, find out if you can get a different room.
  • Think carefully about whether you will require students to contribute to the discussion. Think about whether you will call on individuals for responses to questions. Often a student's initial reluctance to participate is just shyness or uncertainty about whether responses will be treated with respect. But there are students who seem unable to over­ come their difficulties in speaking out. Be sensitive to this possibility and decide how you will deal with this type of student. In such extreme cases, you may want to discuss it with the student. One idea is to make a deal with the student--you won't call on him or her for responses, if he or she agrees to voluntarily respond at least once a week. Or provide opportunities for written anonymous responses that are randomly distributed to the class to read aloud.
  • Give students class time to get acquainted with each other. This can seem like a waste of valuable class time at first. Plan five to ten minutes from time to time, more on the first day of class, to talk about subjects unrelated to class--sports, instruments they play, languages they speak, countries they have visited, the high schools they attended, their majors, the courses they are taking, etc. This can build trust among the students that leads to better discussion. If you have the students working in small groups, allow them a few minutes to get acquainted each time the groups are changed.
  • Do not let one or two students dominate the discussion. Vigilance is required here. The TA can find a discussion enjoyable and productive, but later realize that he was actually just having a conversation with one or two class members while the others dozed. Use questions like: Does anyone have another view? What does someone else think? If a student continues to not allow others the opportunity to talk, remind the student after class of his/her responsibilities.
  • When you ask a question, wait for responses. Often a discussion leader asks a question, then waits only 3-5 seconds for a response. When a student hears a question, he not only takes time to formulate an appropriate answer, he also takes time to ponder whether or not his answer will embarrass him. Wait a full 30 seconds before re-phrasing the question or suggesting a partial response. Thirty seconds can seem like an eternity. (Time it once to see.) If you are uncomfortable with this wait time, try this: ask the question, tell students to think about it individually for 30 seconds, then ask for responses.

Probably one of the most common barriers to good discussion is the instructor's tendency to tell students the answer or put the solution in abstract or general terms before the students have developed an answer or meaning for themselves.
Teaching Tips: Strategies.  Research and Theory for College and University Teachers

  • Really listen to what students have to say. Respond to their remarks in an open and interested manner. Resist the temptation to interrupt a student when you think you know the point of the remark. You may be wrong. Repeat a few words of the student's idea to demonstrate that you understood and were paying attention. Ask a question to clarify an idea that the student could expand. Use the ideas of students in developing the flow of the discussion.
  • Be aware of your body language. Are you communicating interest or boredom? Are you looking at your watch whenever a certain student speaks? (Okay, it's tempting sometimes.)
  • Be open to conflict. Heated and passionate discussion is a good thing. People do not always agree, and a good discussion section can be a model for dealing with conflict creatively. Remind students of the respect rule, if necessary. If things get too hot, ask students to write down their thoughts anonymously. Collect them and distribute them back to class members to read. Encourage conflict when appropriate. If students are avoiding any controversial ideas in a discussion, ask them directly about the areas of conflict.

It is probably true that a class matters more to everyone if there is some rise in the intellectual temperature at some point, and that dispute sharpens points. A good teacher can plan this rise in temperature.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette The Art and Craft of Teaching

  • Let your interest in and enthusiasm for your discipline show. It is more important to some students that their teacher is interested and involved in the subject than that his level of expertise is high. Something attracted you to your field. Share that excitement with your students. (If you are typical, you may have to think hard to remember what you liked about your field, given the demands of graduate school.)
  • Break the class up into smaller groups of four to six for discussion and/or problem-solving. Give them a prepared discussion guide or worksheet with specific questions. (See below for how to develop a sequence of questions that lead from lower to higher level discussion.) In a calculus class, for example, a worksheet might include discussion of the ideas involved in using derivatives to sketch curves, as well as some curve sketching problems. In mathematics and perhaps other classes that involve lots of problem-solving, watch for the student tendency to skip the questions that involve discussion of ideas. They want to proceed directly to solving the problems, an endeavor at which then they are often unsuccessful, having skipped thinking about the ideas involved.
  • If the students are working in small groups all the time, change the groups every once in a while, even if the students protest. Often there are several people in a class who are just plain hard to work with. Changing groups ensures that no one has to work with a difficult person throughout the entire semester. It may seem to you that everyone in the class is protesting your decision to change groups, but it may also be that some students are understandably reluctant to speak out when they do want to change groups. Seek a balance of letting groups work together for long enough to reap the benefits of a comfortable working relationship, and changing groups often enough to minimize uncomfortable working relationships.
  • Brainstorming is a way to initiate a discussion or jump­ start a languishing one. Ask everyone to give an idea. For example, ask students to each quickly give one idea about the causes of fluctuations in the employment numbers. After going around the group once, ask students to call out a few more ideas. Write every idea on the board. Do not take time during the brainstorming to evaluate or elaborate on ideas, just write them down. Once you have the brainstormed list of ideas, rearrange them into groups of related ideas, then use these as the basis upon which to develop discussion.
  • Debate is one technique for dealing with controversial or sensitive issues. Divide the group into "pro" and "con" teams, perhaps disregarding their actual views. Give them time to develop a presentation of the pro or con opinion. Give equal time to hearing each side. Then reflect as a whole group on the result of the debate. Where was the common ground? Where were the strongest arguments or the weakest ones?
  • Plan your discussion session in advance. It is not enough to just know the material. Of course, you can be flexible with your plan. Adapt to interesting ideas that come up during the course of the discussion.

    In planning discussion, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests a three-level hierarchy of questions: knowledge questions, application questions and evaluation questions.

  • Knowledge questions are designed to elicit the facts from the students. These might be data, definitions, procedures, or statements of theorems.
  • Application questions require students to use the facts in novel situations.
  • Evaluation questions demand that students formulate a judgment based on criteria supplied by you, or by the students themselves.


Examples of Question Types

Knowledge Questions

  • Did Descartes believe in God?
  • Who invented the cotton gin?
  • What is the difference between a sodium atom and a sodium ion?
  • What is the definition of carrying capacity?

Application Questions

  • How would you use Cartesian logic to prove the existence of God?
  • How would you explain the effect the invention of the cotton gin had on slavery in the South?
  • How can you put together facts about the sign of the first and second derivatives of a function to sketch a possible graph of the function?
  • How do populations behave when they are near the carrying capacity of the environment?

Evaluation Questions

  • How consistent is the logic Descartes uses to prove the existence of God? If it is consistent, does this mean that it is correct?
  • What do you think might have been the result if the cot­ ton gin had been invented 20 years earlier than it was?
  • In this case study, what would you do about amortizing equipment costs if you were the chief accountant?

A more detailed system of questions (leading from lower to higher level thinking) is provided by Bloom's Taxonomy:

Knowledge questions:

  • What is the law of supply and demand?
  • What is the definition of a verb?

Comprehension questions:

  • What does the graph on page 19 mean?
  • What does the process of digestion entail?

Application questions:

  • Using the procedures we have discussed, what would you include in a summary of Bacon's essay?

Analysis questions:

  • What factors in the American economy are affecting the current price of steel?

Synthesis questions:

  • How might style of writing and the thesis of a given essay be related?

Evaluation questions:

  • How successful would the proposed federal income tax cut be in controlling inflation as well as decreasing unemployment?

(Summarized from Effective Classroom Learning, a publication of the Office of Instructional Resources of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

  • Solicit feedback on discussion sessions. Periodically ask the students to turn in a list of three ways the group could improve its discussions and also perhaps three ways in which the discussions are helpful just as they are. (In short, this is a three good things I three bad things list.) You might ask them to do this individually or in small groups. Then act on their suggestions as appropriate. You may not do everything they suggest, but you can at least talk to them about the issues involved and let them know what other students are concerned about, anonymously of course.

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