Most students have mixed experiences with discussion sections. Sometimes students can find the seminar-style to be helpful for exam preparation, but at other times, they complain about needing to squeeze in one extra class where they feel the material is just repeated. The latter is a common grievance, especially when there is no interactive component to the course.
These small, once-a-week sections coincide with large introductory classes to help students better digest materials from impersonal lectures and clarify any confusion by interacting with teaching assistants, who are typically Ph.D students. But not every discussion session is achieving that goal.
For discussion sections in the social sciences to be truly effective and helpful for students, there should be a balance between retrospection and application. They shouldn’t merely be a repeat of the last lecture, but instead should teach students how to apply concepts learned in class by incorporating regular workshops, presentations and projects that count towards the overall class grade to allow students to take full advantage of the weekly 50 minutes.
More professors should assign projects, presentations or debates that count towards class grades and are then presented in discussion sections.
I had two different experiences with discussion sections during my freshman year and I noticed a clear contrast in terms of how well each facilitated the comprehension of class material. One history discussion section during my fall semester focused heavily on reviewing information from lectures. Although that helped with memorizing facts, it failed to capture my full attention. In contrast, an anthropology discussion section I had for the second semester felt more productive because we had to do class presentations that facilitated learning from each other’s carefully prepared reports of application and research.
To make discussion sections more interactive, they should all include activities that allow students to both review old information and apply those concepts to come up with new perspectives on them. Discussion sections should focus more on application, which also forces students to pay attention in class. To achieve this, more professors should assign projects, presentations or debates that count towards class grades and are then presented in discussion sections. This would require students to spend extra time utilizing knowledge learned in class and applying it to specific topics they are passionate about. This process, compared to retrospection, allows students to apply what they’re learning in practical ways – because they have to come up with new ideas to demonstrate their comprehension of the material – instead of just rigidly memorizing lecture notes. Adopting a more interactive approach would also prevent students from randomly asking or responding to questions for the sake of receiving participation points.
Retrospection can be promoted through writing or problem-solving workshops that help students reflect on their weaknesses. Writing workshops should comprise of essay critiques from students and TAs, where students receive face-to-face feedback on how to improve their writing. For classes that are not writing-intensive, problem-solving workshops that correlate class topics with respective types of questions enable students to practice and solidify materials already learned from lectures. These workshops can be treated as reviews that reinforce what is taught by professors, while also being more engaging than TAs simply reiterating the materials from lectures. This allows students to learn more about what they don’t know instead of listening to the whole lecture for the second time.
A shift from pure repetition of lectures to more interactive activities in discussion sections will be a more effective use of class time.
Some students may think introductory level classes should not be this rigorous and only take these classes as easy electives they don’t expect to take much effort. But there are likely more students who either take them as foundational courses for their future majors or are genuinely interested in the class material. Given this, we must have more interactive discussion sections in order to gain as much knowledge as possible and balance out our costly tuition.
A shift from pure repetition of lectures to more interactive activities in discussion sections will be a more effective use of class time. As TAs better help students with specific issues and more easily track the development of each student by knowing their interests when they give presentations and present projects, students can efficiently master what they’ve learned in lectures and further apply that knowledge to real-life situations.
Marx Wang, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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