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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Beauty of the Virtual Discussion Section | Chronicle of Higher Education

Photo: Michael C. Munger
Michael C. Munger, professor of political science and head of the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University insist, "Instead of Sisyphus in the classroom, you can be a rock star."

Photo: Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

Discussion sections seem essential for impersonal large classes because instructors want a space to interact with students directly. We imagine that discussion sections provide that space.

But what we imagine is often different from reality. Here’s how the reality was described by one student newspaper:

"There is the other discussion section, the one more common in most classes here at the university. This discussion section seems more like a bad blind date than a class: Awkward silences, filled only by an occasional, often irrelevant comment that just makes everyone roll their eyes and glance at their watch."

That view isn’t unique: When students are asked about the contribution of discussion sections to learning, their reactions range from tepid to dismissive.

Colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to teach more, cheaper, and better. Discussion sections not only aren’t very effective, they are expensive.

But there is another option: the "virtual section." I’ve used it for years, and it has made me a much better instructor.

Reconsidering the traditional approach. In large introductory courses, there is a certain level of enrollment — maybe it’s 70 students, maybe 110 — where classroom discussion becomes impractical. The instructor is limited to being the "sage on the stage" on Mondays and Wednesdays, so another class session is scheduled on Friday for small-group discussions.

When I taught at the University of Texas in the late 1980s, our combined "American and Texas Government" class met with 1,400 students in the main classroom, and 26 teaching assistants, each with two sections. That’s about 26 students per "small group," but that was how it worked.

The rationale was that TAs got experience "teaching," and that the students loved sitting in hot, crowded converted closets, bored out of their minds. OK, that makes it sound bad. But I was never convinced that the students — or, for that matter, the teaching assistants — got that much out of the experience. The goal of the TAs was usually just "to get them (the students) to talk."

But leading a group discussion is not easy, and the TAs hadn’t had much practice or training. Learning can take place even if students don’t talk, and talking surely doesn’t equal learning.


And discussion sections are expensive, even when they work. The use of sections can actually limit class size. In many cases, there isn’t much difference — from the professor’s perspective — between a lecture class of 120 and one of 300, but the size is constrained by four factors:
  • Instructor ability to perform well in a large class setting.
  • An auditorium or classroom with size, intimacy, and acoustics conducive to effective pedagogy.
  • Enough teaching assistants to meet discussion sections.
  • Enough break-out rooms at attractive time slots to house effective discussion sections.
Of course, small isn’t always better, either. I recently visited a medium-size state university that prides itself on having "small classes." Each semester my host department offers up to 12 separate versions of its main intro course. None of the 12 are larger than 25 students; some have only half that number — for a total enrollment in the 12 courses of about 200 students. When I asked who was actually teaching those courses, my host reluctantly admitted that only three of them were taught by tenure-track faculty, and the other 10 or so by adjuncts. Given normal turnover among contingent faculty, at least three or four of the adjuncts teaching the course were always, in each semester, doing so for the first time. It was as if the department was always starting over, rolling the rock back up the hill.

The university had a nice 200-seat auditorium. At least two of the tenured professors were master instructors, and could do that "rock star" version of the intro class for an audience of 200. Suppose the department had (plausibly) counted the large class double in terms of the instructor’s course-load. Instead of 12 versions of the intro course, the department could have offered one large intro course, plus 10 small upper-division classes of variety and depth.

Alternatively, some of those 10 adjunct positions used to teach the intro course could be consolidated into a tenure line, with consequent improvement in the quality of the department and the connections students are able to create with permanent faculty members.

Why not do that? Given the emphasis on small classes, the faculty was concerned that the "rock star" version would rob students of any human-scale experience. Discussion sections would have been the usual answer, but my hosts cited as constraints the third and fourth factors listed above: The department couldn’t afford enough TAs to meet with discussion sections, and didn’t have enough rooms to house them.
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Source: Chronicle of Higher Education


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