21 September 2010

Teaching Tip #3: How to Structure Your Weekly Discussion Section

Before I get to any further examples of lesson plans, I'm going to pass along a tip about structuring a class that I probably should have made the second Teaching Tip. I like to structure my sessions the same each week, so that there is a comfortable routine for everyone. I have four main components that I find work for me.
  1. Attendance and announcements [1-3 minutes]
  2. Questions generated by the students about previous weeks, lectures, the reading, assignments, etc. [2-5 minutes]
  3. Active discussion of the readings [35-40 minutes]
  4. My summary of the important points of the discussion and a preview of what they will be doing the following week and a repeat of any announcements [2-5 minutes]

The first and third segments are fairly obvious. The fourth is something that we often forget about, but is extremely important in terms of resolution and closure to the discussion. This is where you highlight the ideas they have shared that have merit, you tell them the right approach to the topic, and if there is such a thing then you tell them the right answer (historians generally like to say that there is no single right answer, but there are wrong answers). Sometimes there will be unresolved questions or issues that you can come back to in later weeks.

The second segment of the lesson plan is a little less obvious. The structure is the same every class, so this is an opportunity for quieter students to come to class prepared with a question (a question is just as valuable in terms of evaluating critical thinking as an answer). Depending on the questions you get you can answer them immediately, or you can put it off to a later point, or if it is really good you can incorporate it into the class discussion. If it is a question that should be resolved in the course of the discussion then write it in the corner of the board, and come back to the student who asked it at the end of the class to see if they have an answer to their question and get them to share that answer with the class.

Best practice in lectures these days is to pause in between your explanation of different concepts or events and allow the students time to reflect and to ask for clarification. So the second step in the weekly lesson plan contributes to the learning experience by allowing students to reflect (for more than just a minute or two) and to ask questions. It seems counter-intuitive in our quest to cram our knowledge into their heads, but it really is an effective part of learning and teaching.

In my most recent teaching experience I split the third section of the lesson plan into two sub-sections.
    1. Preparation of the term paper
    2. Discussion of the reading
Over the next few Teaching Tips I will go through some of the mini lesson plans devoted to preparing students to write history papers (for the first time), and mini lesson plans for non-traditional discussion activities. So you can look forward to Teaching Tips about picking a topic, finding resources (I promise, I will address this!), assessing resources, essay formatting, composing a thesis, use of Chicago Manual style, (some of the common abuses of CM style,) and historical role-playing (debates, interviews, product pitches, etc.). The next Teaching Tip will come in about a week.

Previous Teaching Tips:
  1. First Day of Class
  2. Critical Reading 

1 comment:

  1. I adore you. I just had a discussion yesterday in the common room about my frustrations as a first-time TA leader in creating active discussion among the students while still leaving time to go over lessons on history-essay writing.