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Getting Started with Small Discussion Sections

Getting Started with Small Discussion Sections

9 June, 2016

Here are some ways to start a small discussion sections:

  1. Preparing to teach small discussion sections

As in any other teaching situation, first state 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.

  1. Working 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 strategies 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.
  1. Planning 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 anticipated 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. Relate 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 relate with students and knowing your students’ backgrounds can inform your teaching. Realizing you have experts, or students from various 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.
Set classroom norms or ground rules for discussion. These can be presented to students with a chance 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.