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Teaching Small Discussion Sections

Discussion sections offer students the opportunity to process knowledge on a deeper level, to hear and articulate a variety of viewpoints and perspectives, to develop their position related to a topic and learn to evaluate their own and others’ positions.

Getting Started with Small Discussion Sections

  1. How can you prepare to teach small discussion sections?
  2. How can you work with TAs effectively?
  3. What can you plan for the first session?

Teaching and Learning in Small Discussion Sections

  1. How can you structure the discussion section?
  2. How can you ensure that students feel comfortable participating in discussion?
  3. How can you keep student discussion on track?
  4. How can you manage the various personalities that influence discussion such as quieter students or students who dominate?
  5. How can you keep students engaged?
  6. How can you know if students are learning?

Getting Started with Small Discussion Sections

1. How can you prepare to teach small discussion sections?

As in any other teaching situation, first articulate the learning outcomes. What is it that you want students to be able to do as a result of participating in the discussion section?

There are many ways to lead discussion sections, but a few points need to be considered before starting:

    • How will you organize the sessions in engaging ways?
    • Who will be in the session? How many students are there and what are their backgrounds/ reasons for taking the class?
    • How will you create an inclusive learning environment so that all students will feel safe participating?
    • How will you ensure that all students will participate?
    • How will you achieve your learning outcomes and how will you know if you have reached them?

The Teaching and Learning in Discussion Sections page provides ideas on how to answer these questions.

2. How can you work with TAs effectively?

Discussion sections may be part of a large lecture course with multiple sections being led by a team of TAs. To uphold consistently across sections, working effectively with your TAs is essential.

Here are some techniques for doing so:

  • Communicate course goals and learning outcomes.
  • Invite TAs to attend the lectures and introduce them to the students.
  • Establish a support network among TAs and encourage communication and cooperation amongst them.
  • Hold regular meetings to discuss teaching strategies and any issues TAs may be having. Ensure that everyone is on track and offer support if the need arises.
  • Encourage a peer review process by having TAs observe and provide feedback on each other’s section.
  • Offer to sit in on TAs’ discussion sections to provide feedback on their approaches.

Here are more strategies for working effectively with TAs.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Collaborating Effectively with TAs pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

3. What can you plan for the first session?

  • Lay the foundation.
    Given that discussion sections require students to participate, the first session should focus on:
    • introducing students to how the discussion sessions will run
    • how they are expected to participate and contribute
    • getting them excited about the topics,
    • setting expectations for engagement and
    • creating an inclusive environment.
  • Create engaging content.
    Think about what is exciting about the course. Connect course material and discussion topics to the students' lives. Kick things off with an intriguing question, or short quiz that lists common misconceptions.
  • Get to know your audience.
    Getting to know students and their reasons for being in the class can help you connect with students and knowing your students’ backgrounds can inform your teaching. Realizing you have experts, or students from a variety of fields can make you aware of factors you can tap into in future discussions. Have students write a short biography or answer a few questions for you to collect and review.
  • Setting the ground rules.
    Establish classroom norms or ground rules for discussion. These can be presented to students with an opportunity to make suggestions for changes, or it can be an activity in which students are required to create the list themselves.
  • Make it fun to participate.
    Icebreakers can get students comfortable and talking with each other. Icebreakers can be designed as ‘get to know you’ activities or ‘get to know more about the class’ activities Getting students active and talking in the first session is a great way to set expectations for participation throughout the semester.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Icebreakers pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
CTI Establishing Ground Rules pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

Teaching and Learning in Small Discussion Sections

1. How can you structure the discussion?

Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, p. 38-42) suggest a number of ways to structure or start a discussion section that will stimulate interest and build momentum for the session.

  • A common experience. Creating a shared experience at the beginning of the session, such as through watching a short video clip, reviewing a short reading, or calling attention to a recent campus event ensures that everyone has been exposed to the topic at hand.
  • A controversy. Start a discussion with disagreement.
  • Questions. Questions can be designed to check comprehension of pre-reading material or background knowledge, or they can be designed to ignite deeper discussions.
  • A case-study or problem. Presenting a problem stimulates students to consider the many factors that need to be considered to solve the problem and keeps students focused on the same goal.

For more details on how to use these techniques and more, consult Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, p. 38-42).

2. How can you ensure that students feel comfortable participating in discussion?

As mentioned in the previous question, getting things started right from the beginning will help set expectations for participation. Further, using icebreakers in the first few sessions will help students get comfortable with each other.

To ensure that students feel safe sharing their level of knowledge and various perspectives, referring to a code of classroom ground rules can help. Having guidelines to respect various positions at all times can be upheld by both the instructor and the students.

If any hostility is expressed, it must be addressed effectively. Not doing so has negative implications for student learning. Reiterating expectations and guidelines for discussion throughout the semester will help both protect students and divert students from behaving in unacceptable ways.

Students will have varying learning styles and some will be more comfortable with discussion than others. For example, extraverts prefer to process information through talking whereas introverts prefer to process information internally. Consider having a conversation about different learning styles and have students reflect on their own preferences. Create a variety of learning activities that accommodate the different learners.

Here is a strategy that is low stakes and most students will feel comfortable participating: Before having a whole class discussion, ask students to take two minutes to write ideas or responses to a prompt. Then have students share their thoughts with a partner, and then to another partner pair. Finally, open the discussion up to the whole group. This ensures that everyone has a chance to think about the topic and also to speak about it in smaller and larger groups.

Incorporating diversity and using inclusive teaching practices help ensure that students feel safe participating. Consider, for example, how discussions might affect:

  • Students who do not speak English as a first language
  • Students who are more invested in topics as it may affect them more directly (issues of race, class, political affiliations, etc.)
  • Students with learning disabilities

Include statements for diversity and students with disabilities
. Having a statements in your syllabus communicates your dedication to adhere to related policies and will encourage students to come forth enabling you to work with the students on accommodations that might be needed. Once you learn about your students, always keep in mind how the material or teaching strategies will affect them.

To check in on the classroom atmosphere, integrate a classroom climate assessment that addresses this.
Ask everyone to respond anonymously to the following prompts:
I am comfortable participating in class
a) all of the time
b) most of the time
c) sometimes
d) never

One or two things that would help me feel more comfortable are: _______

Reviewing these responses will give you a good assessment of what is going on in your section.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Establishing Ground Rules pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
CTI Managing Classroom Conflict pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

3. How can you keep student discussions on track?

Discussion sections lead to more uncertainty than delivering a lecture. It is difficult to predict exactly where and how deep discussions will go. A few things can be done to keep students on track so that the discussion leads to desired learning experiences.

  • Display the agenda. What topics are going to be covered during the class and how long can the class expect to spend on any one topic?
  • Share the learning outcomes for the session. If students understand what it is there are supposed to be able to do as a result of participating in the session, it will be easier for them to stay focused on the purpose.
  • Facilitate discussions effectively by guiding students in the right direction. Be prepared to redirect when the topic goes in the wrong direction. Useful phrases to use and teach include: “That’s a good point, but how does it relate to <topic>?” or “Let’s come back to the original question.” When necessary, remind students of the goals and purposes of the discussion.
  • Encourage students to refer to the text. One way to facilitate this is to include numbers on the lines in required readings or have students refer to pages and paragraph numbers.
  • Be prepared for when discussions ignite relevant issues that lead to further discussion. Perhaps the discussion has gone in an unpredictable way, but the direction could lead to positive and worthwhile learning experiences.

Strategies exist for when there is not enough time to finish discussions or to explore issues that came up on a deeper level:

  • Continue the discussion online.
  • Have students write a response after class.
  • Include a ‘parking lot’ on a board for when additional questions or issues come up so that they can be written down to be revisited in a future class or session.

4. How can you manage the various personalities that influence discussion such as quieter students or students who dominate?

In every group there will be a variety of personalities that influence discussions. Some common personalities that challenge the productivity of a discussion are dominators, students who remain quiet, and students who are forceful in their opinions. Some students are comfortable being assertive in a discussion while others may look to the instructor for authority.

Here are some general strategies:

  • Establish ground rules for discussion highlighting being respectful of everyone’s perspectives.
  • Encourage self-reflection to make students more aware of their contributions. Svinicki & McKeachie (2011) suggest recording a section of a discussion for students to listen to and then reflect on how the discussion could be more effective. Similarly, have students fill out a self-assessment form at the end of session.
  • Structure discussions so that students play an active role that involves listening. For example, assign a dominating student to listen and take notes on the various sides of an issue and to provide a summary and conclusion at the end.
  • Ask students to anonymously respond on index cards to the prompt: Discussions in this section would be more productive if: _______.
  • For dominating students, it might be worth having a conversation about their participation privately in office hours. Tell them you appreciate their input and energy, but explain you are seeking a broader participation with the class.
  • Consider letting students lead the discussion for parts of the session or the whole session, depending on the level of the class. Scheduling this ahead and providing tips on effective discussion leading would be essential.
  • If students are being graded on their participation, explain that students will be rewarded for the quality of their contributions rather than the quantity. A conversation about what is considered “good quality” contributions might be warranted. Using a rubric to guide participation can help.
  • Being strategic with the structure of your discussion will enhance participation. The simplest example of this is to have students respond to a question or statement in pairs, then in groups of four and finally as a whole class. This will very likely lead to everyone contributing sufficiently. See more on how you can structure discussion to engage students in the next question.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Common Discussion Challenges pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
CTI Group Work Rubric Exampleword (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

5. How can you keep students engaged?

A most common barrier to discussions is the fear of looking less than intelligent in front of your peers and your instructor. Further, students may not feel as though engaging in a discussion is a worthwhile learning experience or may have developed a habit of passivity in classrooms due to past experiences in less interactive learning environments.

Here are some general strategies to keep students engaged:

  • Maintain an inclusive learning environment
  • Structure discussions to be low-risk learning activities at the beginning of a class or the semester to higher risk as students get more comfortable (lower risk is reflecting individually or sharing with one partner and higher risk might be articulating an argument to the whole class on a heated issue)
  • Keep topics relevant
  • Make the learning outcomes clear and explain justifications for such learning goals
  • Track the discussion content and what progress has been made by writing notes on a board, providing small and occasional summaries, or asking students to stop and reflect on what progress has been made and what still needs to be done (ask a student to provide occasional summaries to the class)
  • Ask questions that do not have one single right answer, for example, students' opinions.
  • Encourage participants to look beyond reaching consensus and to rather dig deeper into an issue
  • Keep to your role as facilitator and give the group enough time to explore all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion

Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, p 47) suggest a couple of collaborative learning activities that are more likely to get most students to participate.

Buzz groups or Peer Learning
Have students break up into smaller groups of five or six. Give the groups a task, such as to find a solution, think of a relevant example, come up with questions, create a hypothesis or apply a principle. Once in small groups, have each group choose a spokesperson. Give an amount of time, 5-10 minutes or longer, depending on the task, and require each member of the group to contribute one idea toward completing the task. Based on all of the ideas presented, the group has to come up with the best response. When time is up, each spokesperson from each group presents their response to the class.

The Inner Circle or Fishbowl
With a smaller discussion class, divide the class into an inner and outer circle (6-15 in the inner group). The inner group will be the discussion group and the outer group will be the observers. Inner circle engages in discussion while the outer circle observes and takes notes to give feedback. The feedback can be on both the quality of the discussion and the group dynamics. This is also useful for increasing student awareness of effective communication within a discussion and also enhances a sense of responsibility to contribute.

6. How can you know if students are learning?

In a discussion section students are learning about and developing competence with the course content as well as their ability to engage in productive discussions.

How you assess student learning will depend on the learning outcomes or goals articulated at the beginning of the course. Rather than wait until the end of the course for final assignments and tests, check in intermittently with Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo & Cross, 1993) to perform daily or mid-semester assessments in order to gauge student learning.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) Measuring Student Learning pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
CTI Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) Summary of Selected Quick and Easy CATs pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)


Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W.J.  (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. (13th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning

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