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For many graduate students, leading a discussion section for someone else’s lecture course is their first entry into the world of teaching. As introductions go, it’s a challenging one. Teaching someone else’s course may be easier in a lot of ways — you don’t have to design the syllabus or prepare the lectures — but it can feel like being tasked with driving a car from the passenger seat.
And the students know you’re not the driver. You're just a TA trying to make them talk, while the real professor calls all the shots. How are you supposed to teach in that situation with any kind of authority?
The good news is that you matter. Leading a discussion section is not just doing the dirty work that the professor doesn’t have time to do. OK, it’s not only that. It’s also an opportunity to turn an impersonal and possibly ineffective series of lectures into a genuine learning experience for your students.
Much research tells us that just listening to a lecture is a highly inefficient way to learn something. Students’ brains need to be actively engaged in revising knowledge and creating meaning for learning to be at its most durable. That kind of engagement is hard (though not impossible) for a lecturer to achieve, particularly with 300 or more students in the room. That’s where you come in.
Your task: to help students actively engage with the material presented in the lectures. How do you do that? Well, you don’t do it by repeating the lectures — the professor has that bit covered. You need to supplement the lectures with activities that make students work with the material so that they can understand it more fully.
Start with a writing exercise. A brief period of writing at the beginning of class is a great way to lay the groundwork for a good discussion by giving students the opportunity to get some thoughts down on paper first. Then, if no one is talking when you try to initiate a discussion, you can ask students to share what they wrote.
What should they write about? If you are comfortable with an open-ended question, ask them to write about something that confused them in the lecture. That can be a good way for you to learn which subjects need the most attention. If you are more of a plan-things-in-advance kind of teacher, ask students to write about a concept from the lecture that you think is important — and that you will be focusing on in your planned activities. I used the word “activities” purposely, because that’s how you should be thinking about this class.
It’s not just for discussion. It won’t take you long to realize that, despite the name, you can’t expect a discussion section to only be a venue for discussion. You’ll also want to design activities that allow students to grapple with important concepts, to test out hypotheses, and to practice skills.
Where the lecture is a single kind of information delivery, your section can be polyphonic. Research has shown that students learn better when teachers vary the conditions of instruction. You want to keep students on their toes, coming at material through explication, writing, peer instruction, group collaboration, and other approaches as well. The idea: If students can work with a concept in a variety of contexts, they’re more likely to be able to transfer their knowledge to other contexts, outside of class.
The archive for the Pedagogy Unbound column is a pretty good source for active-learning activities you can put into use — but don't stop there. Many teaching-and-learning centers across higher education have developed online resources with detailed descriptions of active-learning strategies. Start with the online teaching advice offered by University of Southern California, Cornell, and Berkeley, and see what you can find.
The problem of authority. Many grad students struggle with this, particularly when leading discussion sections. Already an object of suspicion because of your relative youth (or because you are a woman, or because you are not white, or because you are from another country), you also have to deal with the fact that students may feel they don’t have to listen to you because you’re not really in charge.
One way around this problem: Don’t fight it. Acknowledge that you’re not in charge, but use your subordinate position as a teaching tool. When you talk to your students, do so as someone who — like them — is trying to understand everything the professor is saying. Let them know when something in a lecture confuses you or surprises you, or when you would explain it differently. In short, turn your subordinate position to your advantage. Rhetorically, it may help you to get through to your students in a way that insisting on your authority does not. Treat students as fellow travelers on a journey led by the professor, and you'll be surprised by how many of them follow.
Think about the next lecture. The best defense against passivity in the lecture hall is a good offense. Give your students tasks to do that encourage them to listen actively. A quiz with questions that the lecture will answer can be a good tool, particularly if you’re working for a professor who is willing to give you the lecture notes in advance. Or you could challenge each of your students to come back to the discussion section with something they didn’t understand from the lecture. Assign them partners, and have the pairs alternate taking notes in every other lecture, then meet up in the 10 minutes before each lecture to share their notes and prime themselves for the class to come.
A committed TA can remedy many of the shortcomings of the lecture format. It turns out that you are not just a teaching assistant — you are an Active Learning Consultant, brought in to help make sure the students bring the most potent learning approaches to bear on the course material. Their learning depends on you.