This module will provide concrete suggestions for shaping effective section discussions. We will discuss ways to get students talking to each other, how to change pace or direction mid-discussion, how to better deal with loquacious or reticent students, how to structure an unstructured discussion, and how to incorporate non-discussion techniques (role plays, debates, etc.) into discussions.
Facilitating meaningful discussions is perhaps the most rewarding, yet most difficult, task in running a section. Discussions allow students and teachers alike to synthesize readings and insights, to gain confidence in their own ideas, and to learn from each other. Yet discussions can also contain dangerous pitfalls—tangents, single-person domination, unidirectional “conversations,” silences, and monotony. While we often think of discussions as open forums for sharing ideas, with careful preparation we can also push our students to think more deeply about the course material.
The way a TF opens a discussion sets the tone for the day’s conversation. Students want to know what to expect from the conversation and why it is relevant to their learning. Defining key terms, posting your objectives on the board or explaining them aloud, and making connections to previous lessons is a good way to get started.
There is also a variety of ways to encourage students to talk to one another. When you plan for section each week, craft questions that require varying levels of knowledge, comprehension, and analysis (see Bloom’s taxonomy and examples of questions). Ask your students to prepare weekly discussion questions or reading responses and incorporate these into your conversation. In large-group discussion, shift the focus away from yourself by trying not to respond to every comment. Invite students to call on one another and refine other students’ comments.
If you find that you have a few dominant or quiet students, use small-group and pair activities to give everyone an opportunity to hear what his or her classmates have to say. Small groups also give quieter students a less intimidating forum in which to share their ideas. This kind of active learning is also useful when discussing controversial topics or when trying to break large amounts of material into more manageable chunks.
Take time at the end of class reflect with your students on what they have learned and how your conversation addressed the day’s objectives. By the time students leave class, they should have understood how the day’s discussion relates to the course’s larger themes and to previous conversations in section.
If you work with a group of teaching fellows, the workshop agenda provides an example of how these strategies might be shared with others. For more concrete suggestions and issues, see Leading Discussion.