Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How to Teach Engaging Discussion Sections as a Teaching Assistant

This is a guest post by Maria D. Duenas, PhD student at the University of California, Merced, and a long-time Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow in Sociology.

Graduate students are often tasked with leading discussion sections, yet graduate departments sometimes do not provide adequate training on how to teach effectively. 

During the first year in my Ph.D. program, I remember my cohort and I feeling unsure about what we needed to do in a discussion section since, for many of us, our undergraduate institutions did not offer discussion sections. Even if you have experience being a student in a discussion section, it can be difficult to know how to plan your classes. 

The goal of this guest blog post is to help ease graduate student anxieties about what to do in discussion sections by providing a structure you can use in your own classes. 

Before describing my recommended structure, I'd like to point out that the first task you should complete when designing your discussion section is to ask your instructor of record what expectations they have of you and the discussion sections. Getting clarity on those expectations up front will make things easier down the road. 

Unless I get specific guidance to do otherwise, the format of my discussion sections is class announcements, a mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week, and class activities.
Image of an empty classroom
Photo by M. Monk on Unsplash

Class announcements 
A good way to start classes is with class announcements. Make sure to leave plenty of time for student questions, especially in weeks with upcoming assignment deadlines. After that, I either transition into a class activity or a mini-lecture.

A mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week 
I review the key concepts of the week in a mini-lecture in PowerPoint. Your mini-lecture can be from 5 to 15 minutes and should cover the substantive arguments from the readings and lectures and how the arguments are supported. I use clear language and word choice in my mini-lectures and large font sizes in my PowerPoints to help create an inclusive class environment for students with disabilities and for students for whom English is not their first language. At the end of this part of class, I leave time for student questions. 

 Class activities 
Discussion sections offer an important learning opportunity for students to discuss course concepts with each other that they may not have in a big lecture. I use 1-2 active-learning class activities (3 at most – and only if they are shorter activities) in a 50-minute class period. 

Using backwards lesson design, I develop class activities that get students thinking critically and talking to each other in smaller groups of 2 to 3 about the main ideas or concepts of the week. As students are discussing in groups, move around the classroom, ask students questions about concepts or the discussion questions, and answer any questions they may have. Then, bring the students into a larger discussion as a class where you incorporate clear explanations of the key take-home points throughout the discussion. If students are misunderstanding a concept or idea, class activities allow you to see what to clarify and to continue reenforcing key points. 

Active-learning class activities can take many forms. One example is discussion questions with open-ended questions that engage students in critical thinking. Todd Beer at Sociology Toolbox has an excellent blog post with critical thinking discussion questions you can use in your classroom. 

Another idea is to have students watch a video that provides a real-life example of a concept and design discussion questions that ask the students to think critically about how a concept applies to the content presented in the video. You can also facilitate a guided class discussion where students inductively learn a course concept through a guided conversation. I developed a class activity that uses this technique to teach Goffman’s impression management. 

Students enjoy game-like review sessions using Taboo created through PowerPoint or Kahoot and simulations like PlaySpent that are followed up with reflection questions. 

Innovative activities that get the students doing something they do not usually do are memorable and exciting. For example, I designed an activity where students move around the classroom in groups to visit chat stations that list statements containing racist discourse and identify whether the statements are biological racism or one of the four frames of colorblind racism. ASA’s Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology (TRAILS) offers a great repository of class activities and other teaching resources that you can use in your classroom. 

Concluding thoughts 
Think of the class announcements, mini-lecture, and class activities format as adaptable to your specific course and student needs. For example, if you need to include a weekly quiz into your discussion sections, please feel comfortable adding this assessment into the general discussion section structure I present here. Christine Tulley advises us to think of class content as interchangeable segments you can use to build a class. 

Lastly, remember to be easy on yourself. You are learning how to teach, which takes time. Be understanding and patient with yourself as you develop course activities, ways to explain concepts, appropriate pacing for mini-lectures and activities, and more. 

What are some of your favorite class activities that you incorporate in your classroom?