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Discussion: Brief Overview
Reprinted with permission from the Computer Science Department, University of Maryland.
The General Precepts
These generalizations will provide some useful perspective before we discuss the nuts and bolts of managing a discussion.
1. Be Prepared.
You obviously won't enter a discussion session with a word-by-word script, but you should know what types of problems and/or topics you intend to cover and how to go about these tasks. Nothing undermines class morale more quickly or completely than an unprepared instructor.
Think of a science-related anecdote or a short comment on material presented in the previous lecture to use as a possible opening ice-breaker for the session. Such planning is infinitely better than asking "O.K., gang, any questions?" as a means of stimulating interest and participation.
Encourage students to come prepared to discuss and to take full advantage of the time. Be ready to ask them questions if they don't question you. Arm yourself with plenty of back-up problems or exercises supporting current topics, to help students who are unable to identify troublesome homework items or points to discuss. Don't excuse students early because they don't have any questions.
2. Don't be afraid to show warmth and concern.
Treat students with respect and consideration; try to be sympathetic to difficulties they may encounter.
You may find certain students' lack of ability and apparent unwillingness to learn annoying, frustrating and, at times, exasperating. Displays of disgust, contempt or ridicule, however, all aggravate the situation and diminish students' respect for you.
Avoid conveying a sense of self-importance and superiority by showing how simple and self-evident your discipline is for you. Such an attitude turns students off quickly.
Identify with your students as much as possible by recalling reactions you had the first time you encountered such material (which may not have been that long ago). This may help you to avoid the trap of expecting excessive student respect simply because you know more than they do.
3. Be yourself.
Realize that concern and compassion are not synonymous with a lack of control, nor is informality necessarily associated with a lack of preparation or organization.
If you are effective in an informal atmosphere without losing class control or student respect, then, by all means, do so. If, on the other hand, you're more comfortable and effective in a less casual, more structured environment, don't try to fake the "good buddy" routine. You're not at your best when you're ill at ease from trying to assume a character that isn't you.
A suggestion: previous generations of faculty have found that starting off with a more formal, no-nonsense approach and later easing up with discretion is easier to accomplish and better received by students than trying to "tighten up" after a class has seen fit to take advantage of a casual, easy-going approach.