How To Use Recitation/Discussion Sections

Many college course have meetings of recitation or discussion sections in addition to the course lectures which are sometimes run by the professor, sometimes by teaching assistants. What goes on in the recitation is usually supposed to be different than the kind of thing that happens in the lecture; the small size of each recitation group, relative to the course’s whole enrollment, allows for different pedagogical strategies. 

How do you make use of the recitation? What do you or your TAs do with the students? What do you do to encourage quality participation from a variety of students?

There is some possibly helpful information online. One study based on a physics lesson found that “the most effective teaching method was for students working in cooperative learning groups with the instructors questioning the groups using Socratic dialogue.” A longtime MIT math professor has written a small book, available online, for free, on how to teach recitations (I’ve read just the first chapter so far but it looks pretty good, and makes use of student feedback like “Listening to the instructor was like listening to the hum of bees buzzing in a meadow out in Missouri.”)

However, there does not seem to be much in the way of tips specifically for philosophy courses, so if you have some relevant ideas, please share them.

(Thanks to Jeff Sebo for suggesting the question.)

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Sara L. Uckelman
6 years ago

I use mine in a very particular way for my introduction to logic course; I discuss the method here.

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
6 years ago

Lots of us have our TAs lead discussion of lecture and assigned reading material at discussion sections. This fits well with the “discussion section” name for such classes. Nothing special going on beyond that.

Justine Kingsbury
Justine Kingsbury
6 years ago

In my department, in tutorials (aka discussion sections) in first-year courses the students work in groups of four on five on tutorial worksheets, while the instructor moves around between the groups explaining things as necessary. One advantage of this over a more traditional model of tutorial is that actually doing the work themselves, and having to explain things to others in their groups, is a good way for the students to come to understand the material (perhaps especially in critical thinking or logic courses, but it works in Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics as well). It’s also a good way of dealing with classes that are, for budgetary reasons, larger than a tutorial would ideally be.

6 years ago

Someone I follow on linked me to this post a few days ago; took me a while to formulate a response. The lecture-tutorial format is pretty much the only one I’ve had through my time at uni so far (3 years, with 1 more remaining – I’m in B. Int’l Studies/B. Arts with a Philosophy major) – I didn’t know that other universities did it any differently. From skim-reading some of that MIT resource, I’d say it’s not too bad as a general starting point. Chapters 11 and 12 are very much worth paying extra attention to.

My philosophy courses so far have run with two different formats – where they’ve been the more traditional 1-2×1 hour lectures and separate 1 hour tutorial, we were typically using more of a Q&A model, reviewing the lecture content. The lectures in those courses tended to be a lot less interactive, because of the number of students in the courses (in a couple of them, well over 100, with about half consistently attending one-hour lectures). Two of those courses – one on arguments and critical thinking, and one on Kant – also had set questions for each tutorial that the tutor would go through with us, which were broadly designed to be a review of the lecture content.

The downside here was that there wasn’t a lot of peer discussion, which may have been more helpful for some students and encouraged more students to do their readings and review the lecture content.

My current philosophy course uses a model more focused on peer group discussion. The tutor has split the course’s students into 3 discussion groups, of roughly 8-10 people; each week, we have discussion prompts for each group (based on the previous week’s lecture content) posted to the course’s content platform, with a short answer (500 words maximum) to be submitted before the tutorial. In the first half of the tutorial, we form our discussion groups and discuss our individual answers to the prompt to try to come to a consensus position, with some guidance from the coordinator. For the second half, the groups are then mixed (the coordinator tries to get 1-2 people from each group into each mixed group) to review and discuss these consensus answers, again with guidance.

The downside to the peer discussion approach is that students are frequently asking a lot of questions about the content in the lecture rather than saving them for the following tutorial, which is eating into the time to cover that content.

So while there’s merits to both approaches that justify doing a bit of both, balancing peer discussion with Q&A while under time pressure is very challenging, and it’s really up to you as to what you think is easier to manage and better. I will say though that people seem to do better where there’s something to make them develop some answers to set questions before the tutorial – such as a quiz or requiring them to submit their short answers – and that can help you better manage the tutorial time by giving you a way to gauge what areas of content might need a bit more focus, and what areas everyone is fairly clear on just from the lecture content.