Stimulating dull discussion sections

THERE are two different kinds of discussion sections for classes in the humanities. One discussion entails a constant dialogue between the TA and students, and is a supplement to the lecture and readings. Then there is the other discussion section, the one more common in most classes here at the University. This discussion section seems more like a bad blind date than a class: Awkward silences, filled only by an occasional, often irrelevant comment that just makes everyone roll their eyes and glance at their watch.

Discussion sections are essential in a large university -- there is no getting around the need to provide a forum for discussion in large lecture classes. Unfortunately, discussion sections have become mostly a waste of time because of some fundamental flaws in the way most professors organize discussion sections. Currently, discussions often degenerate into review sections that reiterate material covered in lecture. Professors can improve their discussion sections by attempting to reduce student apathy and making the discussions distinct from the lecture.

One of the biggest problems with discussion sections is the fact that it is way too easy and way too tempting for students to attend discussion without completing the reading or going to lecture. Most professors make discussion attendance mandatory, to inspire the learning that occurs through debate and deliberation.However, mandatory attendance often exacerbates the problem. Many times, enrolled students will show up to class to save their grade, but will have nothing valuable to contribute to the discussion. Students who attend without the intention of participating should not be forced to come to discussion because they learn little, and bring even less for the class to learn from.

Making participation a percentage of the grade also does little to incite meaningful discussion. Since participation is often a very small portion of the grade anyway, students will read occasionally, and throw in a random comment to give the impression they are well-prepared.

Mandatory attendance and vague descriptions of a participation grade have done little to improve the quality of discussion sections. Unfortunately, this will only improve when they are forced to complete the reading. One of the best ways to force people to read is the dreaded pop quiz. Pop quizzes are a pain, but it is becoming a necessary evil to make discussion sections more valuable. With pop quizzes, most students will voluntarily attend to improve their grade, and most will also be prepared to contribute to discussion. As an added bonus, the quizzes will push procrastinators to do the reading every week, rather than during painful all-nighters at the end of the semester.

Once student apathy is accounted for, there is still a large onus on the professors to improve discussion sections. A long-term solution lies in a change of philosophy for most professors about how discussion sections are supposed to run. Most professors envision an open discussion where students leave intellectually stimulated and have most, if not all, of their questions answered. However, discussion sections, as they are currently managed, are far from any professor's ideal. Professors must take charge and actively create solid lesson plans for each discussion section for there to be any improvements. Professors have the right and responsibility of planning discussion sections the way they see fit. Some professors like to give TAs freedom, others like to have distinct lesson plans for every section. Nevertheless, discussion sections run much smoother when the professor plans the section, not the TA.The relationship between professor and TA should be one similar to a teacher and a substitute -- a relationship where the TA has a lesson plan and just follows the professor's plan for the discussion. After all, the responsibility of provoking discussion that is relevant to the course lies primarily on the professor -- he creates the exams, designs the lectures, assigns the papers -- he should make sure discussion sections are relevant to his course.

Often, when TAs have too much independence or are burdened by unprepared students, they often create a review section, rather than a discussion section. The purpose of discussion sections is not simply to review material -- review sections are fantastic for math or science, but courses in the humanities require a different strategy. The TA should make himself or herself available for questions, but he should only address review questions for a few minutes of each discussion section. Small sections are supposed to facilitate new discussion that can only occur in a small forum-like setting.

Professors need to either have specific discussion questions that provide new insight into the week's reading, or assign reading that is unique to discussion only. Set questions provoke the debate that the professor finds important. If these questions are insightful, and sometimes controversial, debate can ensue and students can use the discussion section to interact with each other and the teacher. However, if the debate revolves around topics already covered in lecture, it is a waste of the students' and TA's time.

Both students and professors must work together to improve discussion section, because the awkward silences and rolled eye-balls are unacceptable.

(Patrick Harvey is a Cavalier Daily associate editor. He can be reached at pharvey@cavalierdaily.com)

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