Leading Discussions & Laboratory Sections


Leading Discussions & Laboratory Sections

Leading discussion sections, laboratories, recitations, review sessions and the occasional guest lecture are staples of being a graduate teaching assistant. Many people are nervous at first if they are not used to speaking before groups, but with a little practice most of us easily become more comfortable and effective. One of the keys to good public speaking is confidence, which comes first through practice and later through experience. Be yourself and make an effort to engage students, but you will also need to be prepared and know the material, since the students will be looking to you for guidance. Often, you may find that the hardest part of teaching a class is preparing for it, and that the easiest and most rewarding part comes in teaching it.


Have a plan.

Maybe with experience you will be able to improvise a brilliant discussion or run a spontaneous laboratory exercise. But even long-time teachers have a plan when they step into the classroom. Set goals for each class, with a focus on what you want your students to learn. You should know what your most important points are before you show up for class. Make an outline of everything you want to cover, so you have a backup if your mind goes blank. Prepare your visual aids and handouts in advance, and keep notes or sketches of what you plan to write on the board or overheads.


Start and end on time.

Pacing yourself is an important skill. Sometimes it seems that lectures and discussions drag on forever; other times the hour is over before you know it. Wear a watch and keep track of time. Focus on important points and make sure that you end with a conclusion, rather than just letting everyone run out the door. If you are running an activity or laboratory for the first time, run through it beforehand so that you know what to expect and have a better sense of how long it really takes. Remember to leave time for questions, announcements, and collecting/returning paperwork. Be flexible and willing to cut extra material if you are trying to cram too much information into too little time.


Speak clearly and loud enough for everyone to hear.

Try to articulate your words and speak loudly, without being overbearing. Face the students when you talk to them. If you are running a discussion, you will need to time your comments to move the conversation along; if you are lecturing you might want to leave time for note-taking. It is common to rush if you are nervous or lack confidence about the material, so try to take your time, avoid "uhs" or "ums," and make eye contact with the whole room. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice, both of which can have unintended consequences if you don't pay attention. Remember to smile!


Tell them what you're going to tell them.

Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them. Just like an essay, each class should have a theme, supporting material, and conclusion. Make sure that you begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. Without being unduly repetitive, you should clearly structure the presentation of the material so that you emphasize and re-emphasize key points. If you treat all of the material equally, students may find it difficult to see what is most important. If you think the students are having a hard time "getting it," try a quick classroom assessment activity to find out what they're really thinking. That way you can adjust your strategy to refocus on the most important ideas.


Use visual aids.

Many students find it useful to have the same information presented in different forms. In addition to the traditional blackboard and overhead projector, teachers routinely use video projectors and computer monitors to show diagrams, charts, photos, movies, animated figures, etc. Although visual aids range from photocopied handouts to elaborate PowerPoint presentations, simply writing key phrases and words on the board can be a powerful tool to help students focus. Overheads or handouts can be made in advance, allowing you to minimize time spent writing on the board. Writing by hand is fine for overheads, although word processed text can be printed, and black & white or color images can be photocopied directly onto transparencies.

Remember to check your work for clarity, accuracy and (especially) the size of the text/images on an actual screen or board. You may be surprised at how text that looks big to you will look much smaller (and harder to read) when projected to the front of the classroom. Regardless of the approach you decide to use, remember to face your audience and stay out of the way so that everyone can see. And don't just read by rote from your visual aids. Interact with your students!


Ask questions.

Asking questions and eliciting responses is a great way to get students to think. However, it can also be difficult to ask successful questions. Think hard and critically about your goals, rather than gratuitously forcing students to respond in a rote exercise. If your questions are too easy, no one will answer and you risk appearing condescending. If they are too hard, your students may be frustrated. If you are looking for a specific answer, think about the range of possible responses you might actually get. The answer you are looking for may not be obvious compared to other responses that are equally valid. Be sure to give enough time for answers after you ask a question. You should allow students to think and formulate a response. Three to five seconds is a common rule of thumb, which can feel surprisingly long when you are standing in front of a class.

Some types of questions, such as those that involve break-out sessions in small groups or individual reflection, may take considerably longer but allow more time for meaningful thought. Some teachers use unexpected questions to keep students on their toes, although many teachers prefer to avoid an aggressive or interrogative approach that can make students defensive or put them on the spot. Other strategies include distributing questions in advance for students to think about before class, or having students submit their own questions at the start of the class.


Answer questions.

Create an open classroom environment for questions from students. Every student is probably confused about something that was covered on any given day. Sometimes there isn't enough time to answer all of the questions, other times no one will ask. If you consistently budget time (not necessarily at the end of the class) and maintain a positive attitude, you can encourage students to ask questions and clarify misconceptions before they have to submit a paper or take a midterm. Remember that many students are anxious about asking questions in front of their peers, or afraid to reveal their confusion to the instructor. Be patient, take each questions seriously, and do your best to answer. Conversely, don't be afraid to admit that you don't know the answer to a question. You can always do a little background research if you need a better or more complete answer.


Engage everyone.

Effectively working with the many different personalities in a class is probably one of the most difficult skills to learn as a teacher. A classic example is the quiet student who sits in the back, while a handful of verbose students loudly take over the class. There can be many reasons why students don't participate, including lack of preparation, shyness, confusion, boredom, illness, or lack of sleep. Simply calling on different students or making eye contact with everyone can help redistribute participation. Talking to students individually during office hours or after class lets them know that you care about them, and can also let you know if there is a specific reason why your approach isn't working. If other students are especially disruptive, be patient and keep your cool, but don't be afraid to let them know later how their behavior affects the entire class. Remember that it is crucial not to let anyone "slip through the cracks."


Look for teachable moments.

Sometimes a student says something in a discussion that other students disagree with, and a heated discussion follows. Maybe your carefully planned laboratory exercise just ended in flames. Don't be frustrated! You can use these situations as opportunities to illustrate important points (e.g., reasonable people can have different views, experiments don't always give the results you want). Teachable moments don't just happen when things go wrong, either. Maybe an event in the news shapes your discussion the next day, or an insightful question from a student gives you a new way to explain the material. Don't be afraid to take advantage of these situations if you can avoid becoming sidetracked.


Think about technology.

Think about how technology can work for you. Often, the most complex technology you may need is a blackboard, overhead projector, VCR or slide projector. Other times you may need to run computer programs for an entire class on individual computers, give a PowerPoint presentation with animated figures, or maintain a web site for a course. UIS, the Lauinger Library, and CNDLS have campus resources for equipment and/or training throughout the year. Web-based applications used at Georgetown such as Blackboard can centralize and facilitate routine class activities like e-mails, posted readings, links to websites, responses to assessments, review material, etc. Like everything else, plan in advance and try to make sure that the equipment and software work before you need to use it.


Mix it up.

Time spent on other activities can encourage critical thinking instead of rote learning. Case studies, group activities, student presentations, problem solving and other approaches encourage students to use information rather than simply memorizing it. By varying your strategies, you can reach students who might otherwise be bored or confused. You can also treat these activities as an opportunity to assess your students' understanding and ability to work with the ideas you've been teaching.


Keep it real.

Why is what you are teaching important? You don't need to be teaching about the most urgent issue in the world, but you should be able to show your students that what they are learning is relevant to real life. Avoid the trap of using grades as your only motivating tool. Try to show how your field of study is connected to your students' lives and the world around them, not just to next week's lecture or the upcoming exam.

Learning Names in a Large Classroom

These activities can be effective for learning:

  • role playing in discussions
  • student-led discussions
  • using technology such as video or looking at primary documents on Web sites
  • inquiry-based exercises
  • case study discussions
  • problem-based learning
  • situated tasks that emulate experts in your field
  • student presentations, including multimedia project presentations
  • collaborative group work, including reflective writing and peer editing

Practical Advice on Question Asking Strategies

Adapted with permission from Chuska, Kenneth (1995), Improving Classroom Questions, pp.53-56.

The following elements are necessary aspects for preparing effective questions:

  1. The wording of the question should indicate the type of thinking required of students and the way in which the content will be used or applied.
  2. The question should attend to the conditions that influence whether students decide to respond.
  3. The question should attend to the conditions that influence the content of student responses.
  4. The question should attend to the conditions that affect the accuracy and quality of student responses.
  5. The teacher must anticipate the likely or possible responses of students and must prepare to react to student responses in order to encourage participation.

Consider how the following might deter or promote participation:

  • the atmosphere: a positive, open and humane atmosphere will garner more participation than a sarcastic or negative one.
  • your response: praise or immediate agreement can actually shut down conversation -- if you feel like you must give praise, give concrete reasons for doing so.
  • leading questions -- Using leading words or phrases (liked/disliked, good, better, etc.) limits the variety of responses a student can make.
  • showing interest -- statements or questions that demonstrate interest in students' responses will promote participation.

Setting Goals

Adapted with permission from Chuska, Kenneth (1995), Improving Classroom Questions, pp.53-56.

When it comes time to set goals for a class, think in reverse. What skills and knowledge do you want your students to walk away from your class with? After you brainstorm several possibilities, try prioritizing them as:

  • essential
  • important, and
  • just good-to-know.

Look at your list again -- does it mesh with how you are conducting your class? If "learning critical thinking skills" is high on your list, how are you encouraging that in your students, for instance? Think about how you will measure success. Memorization and regurgitation of information do not constitute learning. Just because you have "taught" something doesn't necessarily mean that students have "learned" it. Assessments are easier if you have set tangible goals that can be measured and designed a plan to teach to those goals. Think about how you will measure success. How will you know if students have learned critical thinking skills? Are they asked to synthesize or evaluate material, or just to explain a concept?

Once you have targeted learning goals for your students, you will be better prepared and more efficient when designing a presentation or plan for a discussion. Use your essential goals to focus on the outcomes you want from your students. Different types of classes can have very different purposes, depending on the level of the students and the sophistication of the content. Remember that details are quickly lost and forgotten; ways of thinking about patterns and connections are more important.

For more on this concept, see Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (1998).

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