By Joela Jacobs, Department of Germanic Studies and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching

This handout is intended for CAs/TAs leading a discussion section that is part of a class taught by another instructor. It focuses on discussion-based teaching approaches.


To lead a successful discussion section, you need to identify its learning goals, so you can plan class meetings and assignments that help your students achieve those objectives.

  • Talk to the instructor about expected outcomes and responsibilities, attend the lectures
  • Familiarize yourself with the syllabus, materials, and any potential scheduling issues
  • Identify class goals and policies for your section (consider giving them out in writing)
  • Take into account the number of students, their year of study, and level of prior knowledge
  • Prepare for each meeting by making a lesson plan (e.g. containing discussion questions and group work activities, planning for transitions and anticipating questions) that is aligned to the course goals and lectures, and consider timing your activities
  • If you are using equipment or a particular classroom arrangement, test the equipment or familiarize yourself with the room in advance.
  • Check in with the instructor periodically throughout the quarter for any changes in course goals, schedules etc. and provide feedback on what students find difficult
  • See also “Lesson Planning,” “Daily Tasks in Teaching,” and “Expectations of Course Assistants.”

The First Meeting

It is important that you create a safe learning environment from day one, so your students feel comfortable participating and asking questions. By getting to know your students, establishing clear ground rules, and fostering a positive discussion atmosphere, you help students focus on learning.

Get to Know Each Other

  • Introduce yourself and make sure everyone is in the right room
  • Have the students introduce themselves and/or consider an ice breaker game to help get everyone acquainted quickly (“students introduce the person next to them,” “tell two truths and a lie,” “raise your hand if you…”)
  • Learn your students’ names

Establish Clear Ground Rules

  • Be on time and bring everything you will need (model the behavior you expect from students)
  • State your expectations clearly (e.g. “For our meetings, you need to have read the texts and prepared three questions.”), and tell students how to reach you if they have questions
  • Explain the ground rules and address potential issues (laptops, phones, absences, being late, plagiarism, assignments, deadlines, scheduling, etc.), and ask if they have questions

Foster a Positive Discussion Atmosphere from Day One

  • Consider having a conversation about discussion culture with your students to create a sense of communal responsibility, e.g.
    • Ask what makes a good or bad discussion and put the suggestions on the board
    • Agree on a small set of mutual ground rules such as: “We do not interrupt each other.” | “There are no stupid questions.” | “We listen to each other.”
    • Explain your goals for the discussion section with a few clearly outlined recommendations, e.g. “To allow for the introduction of different points of view, we need to ensure everybody can speak freely and is not interrupted, but also that all others listen attentively and actively.”
  • If there is time, generate the first discussion with the help of introductory material or a specific question that is a) related to the class topic, b) does not require prior knowledge, and c) is engaging and exciting, and consider beginning with a group discussion format in which students get to know each other further
  • De-centralize discussions to encourage student-to-student conversation by limiting your contributions (if possible, even physically remove yourself from the front and center of the class, maybe walk around)

See also “Discussion Strategies and Trouble-Shooting,” “Asking Effective Questions,” “Effective Listening,” “Planning for Small Groups,” and “Sample Small Group Exercises.”

Assessing Learning

  • End class properly: help students evaluate what has been accomplished, assess what students are taking home, and provide closure, e.g. through a student summary of the main points, with the help of key terms or the day’s agenda on the blackboard, by asking if there are questions, etc.; situate the achievements within the learning goals of the course
  • Assess learning throughout the course: find out whether your students learned what you intended by asking (follow-up) questions, assigning minute or response papers, testing, active listening, reading student responses, talking to students in office hours, etc.
  • Grade participation fairly: take notes of student participation during class, note quality and quantity of contributions separately; have students grade each other in a specific exercise within a point system anonymously and tally the results; give students feedback on how they are doing so they can improve their participation, e.g. by giving them access to their grade tally

References and Further Reading