General pedagogical thoughts, discussion sections

Please review and employ

Overall goals:

  • Consistency
  • A respectful and productive environment
  • Focus and self-discipline
  • Retention of "big-picture" considerations and of above overall goals.


Use of discussion questions is good.

o However, don’t let them whisper answers to one another. Solution: get close to individuals who are targets of questions. If another student whispers, tell that other to shut up!
o Similarly, if a number of people have already answered aloud, the target individual then answering doesn’t really reveal anything. Solution: call on individuals and insist that others not answer aloud.

It’s always good to emphasize note taking.

o Solutions: Tell them what is important, e.g.,
§ "You should write this down"; "This is likely to appear on a test"; "OK, read me back what you just wrote down""; etc.
o However, I would discourage distributing your own notes to them afterwards—this "lets them off the hook" for their own note-taking. Instead, point students at "Sample Lecture Notes Handout" under "Resources" and insist that they take their own notes. This is also a good opportunity to point out the importance of getting good notes from a fellow student for any sessions missed (lecture or discussion).

Reviewing lecture content is very good.

o However, beware the possibility that it can take too much time or drain energy from the session. What strategies can you develop for enlivening review?
o Remember also that too much review can come perilously close to spoon-feeding. You want to always be strategizing how to make them take responsibility themselves. Solution: limit the duration of review, and make sure that you only review that material which a majority may need. Otherwise, tell individuals "you can find that for yourself: use the index of the Bonds textbook."

Make sure that all students can hear you and one another.

o Solutions: Speak up yourself
o If someone speaks too quietly to be heard, say "did everyone hear that?", and if there is any doubt, repeat the question yourself.

Insist upon specific and accurate use of terminology.

o Solution: If someone volunteers an answer but does not use the right terminology, prompt that student—or the class—to come up with the specific terminology.
o Solution: A corollary of this is that, in the event of any unclarity, you yourself should always provide a working definition, and make sure that individuals’ answers conform to it. This is one reason we have you take notes in lectures.

Calling on individuals by name is good.

o One wants to convey the sense that answering questions is the best way to demonstrate participation. Solution: call on people, and write down their answer/no-answer, letting students see you do it. Don’t ever let a student get away with casually saying "I have no idea" without demonstrating that such unpreparedness has a price.
o Similarly, guesses are not admissible and should be critiqued as guesses.
o Solution: Another good technique to force participation is to set up listening, debate, or teamwork b/w rows

Referencing the textbook is good; insisting that they look things up is good.

o However, don’t let them just read definitions from their notes (or even worse, from others’ notes) or from the textbook. Solution: If they do simply read a definition, pose the followup question, "OK, now explain that in your own words, and give an example."
o Obviously, students should bring textbook and score anthology to all class meetings, including discussion groups.
o Solution: notebook quizzes are a good strategy. Be sure to limit their scope and duration:
§ Just 1 or 2 questions
§ No more than 5:00 minutes for the quiz.
§ No talking or sharing of answers by students.
§ Collect results


o Generally speaking, don’t hand-hold too much; refer students to "Resources" instead.
o Likewise, don’t get caught up in problem-solving and don’t commit to a position you’re not sure of: refer to professor-of-record instead.


o Solution: Circulate attendance sheet. How will you address issue of late arrivals? Solution: Make essential class announcements in the first 5:00 minutes and don’t repeat for the tardy ones. Other strategies?

Quiz strategies

o Make sure you have a second pair of eyes to help monitor.
o Turn off the blowers during musical examples; the noise is very loud and distracting.
o Fades are nicer than abrupt cut-offs at end of examples.
o Don’t verbally change the sequence of examples (e.g., don’t say: "OK, you’re going to answer question 1, then question 3, then question 2," etc. In all circumstances you want to avoid giving clues, particularly clues that might travel across/between sections.
o During quizzes: try to make eye contact, look around the room while students are taking the quiz, and move around the space yourself. Do not let would-be cheaters predict or rely upon your quiz conduct.

Assigning work to be done in- or outside discussion meetings:
As a general policy, we will avoid the assignment of additional chores outside of discussion time. TA’s are at liberty to modify or initiate in-class work as they see fit—and provided that such work does not disrupt the Friday-by-Friday curricula circulated by professors—but TA’s should avoid giving assignments to be done outside of discussion meetings.