Leading a Great Discussion Section as a Teaching Assistant

by | Jan 23, 2018

As a teaching assistant (TA), you will most likely teach many discussion sections during your time in graduate school. Discussion sections are an important opportunity for students to build on their understanding of course lecture content. They are a chance to ask questions, dive deeper into material, and make connections that there might not be time to address directly in class.

No less importantly, they are also an opportunity for students to connect with one another and with you as their graduate student instructor or teaching assistant and build the kind of community and rapport that can be difficult to accomplish in a large lecture course, no matter how thoughtfully the course is structured.

In sum, discussion sections are an important part of both learning and community building in academia. But how can you, as a teaching assistant, lead a great discussion section?

Stick close to the material—at first

Yes, a great discussion session ideally fosters a thriving discussion among students and goes beyond what is covered in the course lectures. But to get there, you need to make sure students in your section are all on the same page. In other words, a great discussion session requires at least some review.

Come in with key points, passages, and texts from that week’s lesson. Your goal as a teaching assistant is not to reiterate what was covered in the lectures by the professor but to make sure your students all understand the main takeaways. If they don’t, or if you sense there is a significant disparity in understanding among the group, take the time to do a close reading or more detailed review of areas of confusion.

Your goal should be twofold: make sure students come out of discussion knowing the material they need to and having learned the skills they need to improve their comprehension throughout the semester.

Come with questions

Ultimately, you want students to learn how to ask better questions of the material they are reviewing, to deepen their knowledge of whatever subject they are learning. But to teach them how to ask good questions, you need to model good questions to them.

Given the experience and comfort level of your group, you may want to open with the opportunity for them to ask questions. However, not all students, especially at the start of the semester, may be ready for this.

Whether you are facilitating discussion or taking more of a lead role, come armed with the important questions you think need asking. If they don’t come up organically, bring them to the table at the appropriate moment.

Give students tools to think beyond the course

Discussion sections are about expanding and deepening students’ knowledge of lecture material. But a great discussion section also gives students tools to get more out of lectures each week and more out of their learning in general.

As you are reviewing the material, pay attention to the kinds of questions that come up and the points you collectively linger on. Are students not clear on a the details of a key point? Is there confusion around how the instructor is covering material (their pacing or slide deck)? Incorporate this knowledge into how you shape discussion sections and, where appropriate, get into the details with students.

If you’ve noticed that the instructor creates dense slides for example, suggest techniques for students to navigate this hurdle, like requesting the slides before or after class and taking notes directly on slide printouts. Also take the opportunity to turn this knowledge into a brief lesson on how to give clear and resonant presentations that don’t involve an endless series of text-heavy slides!

Be flexible

If nothing else, remember that leading a great discussion section as a teaching assistant provides students a safe and comfortable space to do what they may not be able to do during lecture: ask questions, explore connections, and cover the material in more depth.

You may come into the discussion section with a lesson plan and find that it does not meet the particular needs of that session: students may have other questions, get stuck on a text you didn’t expect you’d need to cover, or have unforeseen challenges with the material. This is a chance for them to get what they need, so prepare to go with the flow.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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