As is natural for a second-semester senior, I have begun to reflect on my academic endeavors and evaluate which experiences I’ve found valuable at Brown — and which ones I’ve found not so valuable. Out of all of my experiences, I’ve found mandatory TA-led discussion sections the most in need of improvement.
As a current TA and a former student of various TA sections, I’ve found that these sections can be helpful and thought-provoking for students, providing them with an opportunity to engage with course material outside of the classroom, ask relevant questions and connect with peers. However, in many cases, these opportunities only exist in theory. In reality, this is only possible when the students are interested in attending and have questions to ask, a scenario which is far too often uncommon.
Unfortunately, for many students, TA sections are viewed as just another box to check on their to-do list, and it’s not unusual for them to show up solely for the purpose of getting attendance points while doing the bare minimum in section. As a result, the section can quickly turn into an empty time block, full of awkward silence, blank stares and bored students, who impatiently text or scroll through Facebook until the hour is up.
Having been on both sides, I know how unpleasant it can be for both the TAs and the students when participation is low. This lack of engagement creates an uncomfortable environment; it can discourage even interested students from participating and negate the potential benefit sections could have in encouraging students to speak. There have been countless times where I have sat there as a TA waiting for a response from a silent crowd; there have also been times where I have been the silent person in the back of the room staring at my TA as they attempt to provoke a discussion.
Sections have a lot of potential value: We should have a space to discuss course material and learn from each other outside of lecture. But given the fact that this is so often wasted, the question then stands: How do we improve section and boost student motivation? To start, we must identify the root of the problem, which in most cases, is the mandatory nature of the section. By making these TA-led sections a class requirement, usually in the form of attendance-based course credit, Brown essentially turns these sections into a transactional obligation rather than an opportunity to learn. Considering that the section is often not graded for quality of effort or participation but simply for attendance, it usually becomes the lowest academic priority and the first place students cut corners when they are short on time — which they usually are.
Ultimately, Brown should be aware that discussion sections, while beneficial in theory, can very quickly become a waste of time for both the TA and the student if the dynamics are not right. As a result, I encourage students, professors and TAs to consider the ways that they can rethink the section model to get the most value out of everyone’s time. This could take different forms for every class, from holding biweekly sections to transitioning to attendance-optional open office hours to eliminating section entirely.
Reducing the section meeting times from weekly to biweekly could boost engagement by giving students more time to get to the materials and come up with talking points. Students could also use the extra time to craft more thoughtful questions or responses instead of being rushed to do readings for back-to-back weekly discussions.
Further, if some of these sections were made optional, it would give students the opportunity to show up when they are actually interested in the content or when they have an important question — not solely to rack up attendance points. To be clear, making sections optional is not ideal in every course. As a language course TA, I strongly believe that the weekly discussion sections are necessary to help students improve their speaking abilities. Conversing in a foreign language in an informal setting is not something students normally have access to and is ultimately invaluable to language acquisition. However, for sections for reading-based introductory courses in which students simply go over articles, the need is much less pressing. Instead, optional office hours could be held if students have questions or want to discuss the materials further.
In some cases, holding section may not further the goals of the class at all, and in that case professors can consider removing it altogether. I encourage professors to take note of the feedback received in the Critical Review to ensure that sections are productive and useful for learning, and, if not, to consider alternative options such as Canvas discussions.
When professors are constructing a curriculum, it important to ensure time is being well-spent by both the TAs and the students. Though there is no one-size-fits-all solution, a more flexible section model can alleviate many of the problems that plague sections and foster more constructive discussions and engagement.
Samantha Savello ’18 is a teaching assistant in HISP 0200 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.