Promoting Class Discussion

The function of the discussion section is to provide an opportunity for students to become actively involved in learning and become familiar with a specific topic related to the course. Students are subdivided into small groups and tutored in a more relaxed atmosphere than a lecture. They are encouraged to participate in lively discussion, to ask questions and stimulate conversation. The discussion section generally should not be a summary or a repeat of the lecture material but instead should focus on a specific topic of particular relevance or interest.

The role of the Teaching Assistant is to usually to guide the discussion by providing some relevant material and putting forward leading questions which provoke critical thinking and participation. Assistants will typically receive more guidance from the course instructor. This might involve standard discussion topics that all assistants are expected to introduce, but it might also permit significant flexibility for each assistant to focus on topics of their own interest. The course instructor and supervisor will determine how discussion sections should be managed.

UWM’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has many resources to help new and experienced Teaching Assistants improve all aspects of their teaching. CETL teaching tips contains helpful information, including a guide to AI and ChatGPT in the classroom. Below are a few general pointers broadly applicable across most fields.

Preparing for discussion class

Teaching Assistants should be familiar with the lecture material and its salient points prior to the discussion section. This will involve attending lectures and discussing the concepts to be explored with the instructor and other assistants.

Pedagogical approaches differ. In some fields, discussion sections may use few materials other than a course text that the group considers together. In others, the Teaching Assistant may be asked to prepare handouts, problems, or Power Point presentations. In many cases, the kind of preparation required will vary week to week, and supervisors can help Teaching Assistants think through possible approaches.

Designing discussion questions

A good discussion depends on asking the right kinds of questions. Good discussion questions provoke critical thinking and require interpretation and analysis. The subject of the question should require students to reflect on the material being conveyed in the broader class. Ideally the question should have a range of answers, and so elicit different viewpoints. At the same time, although questions that elicit purely personal responses will generate a range of answers, they may not prove as rigorous as the assistant would like.

Below are some examples of useful phrases and questions to avoid when designing discussion questions. Questions to avoid tend to encourage “yes” or “no” answers, are ambiguous or vague, seek obvious factual responses, or steer the conversation in a particular direction.

Useful phrasesQuestions to avoid
Compare and/or contrastAnything that results in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Is the Earth overpopulated? This does not promote much discussion. How might we determine whether or not the Earth is overpopulated?
Why?Avoid vague questions. Is poverty a problem? There is not enough information in this question to give a meaningful answer. What causes poverty to be a problem in the US today?
What is the meaning of…Avoid leading questions, encourage students to express their own view. What makes ‘Gone with the Wind’ such an amazing movie?
How might you explain…
What is meant by…
What are the causes of…
What might the result be…
Does anyone disagree?
Table 1 Examples of useful phrases and questions to avoid when designing discussion questions. Adapted from Stanford University – Designing Effective Discussion Questions

Presenting material in class

Sometimes there are small presentations in discussion sections, in which the Teaching Assistant reviews especially difficult material or introduces additional material. This will usually be coordinated by the course instructor. When presenting material, Teaching Assistants should proceed slowly through the new information to give the students time to absorb and reflect on the topic. They also should build in as many opportunities for dialogue and exchange as possible, rather than lecturing at length.

Engaging students and facilitating learning

It can be difficult to get students to ask or answer questions in discussion. Students sometimes want to be told the facts about a topic and do not want to have to explore less settled matters out loud. A friendly relaxed atmosphere should eventually make them feel more at ease. Try to get students active from the beginning of the semester, otherwise it will be more difficult to change their pattern. Open ended questions that do not have an obvious right answer are more likely to make students feel safe and confident enough to respond.

Here are some tips to encourage students to participate:

  • Learn their names. Establishing this small marker of a personal relationship with your students makes the interactions feel more engaging and authentic.
  • Wait time. Give students a chance to respond to a question. Allow them to collect their thoughts, look through their notes and formulate an answer. Practice being comfortable with periods of silence.
  • Encourage early speaking. Getting students to sound their own voices early in class in ways that are safe and easy, such as summarizing a prior discussion post, or reading aloud, can prime them to speak more later.
  • Preparation in pairs or small groups. Give students the opportunity to discuss or write about a topic in smaller groups before asking for contributions in the larger group.
  • Encourage students to pose questions in advance. Ask the students to write a question on a card and bring it to class. Compile the cards, pick a few interesting ones, read them out (or write them on the board) and answer them collectively as a class. Or, ask students if there is anything they want you to go over. Write the topic on the board and ask if other students can answer the query before answering it yourself.
  • Have students present. Have students take turns introducing or explaining a topic to the class.
  • Manage over-participation. Some students talk too much, which can crowd out those who feel more cautious or who need more time to gather their thoughts. Try waiting until a few hands are up before calling on anyone. If the same students continually provide answers, an instructor might say something like “Let’s hear from some of the other voices in class.” Or, the instructor might follow a talkative student’s comments with a simple invitation to others, such as, “Who has something to add?”