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Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors
GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Teaching Discussion Sections

Creating Discussion Guidelines

Guidelines for discussion in sections can help class go smoothly, because everyone gets a shared understanding of expectations and boundaries. Working with your students to establish guidelines cooperatively encourages them to consider each guideline’s purpose and gives them a greater investment in abiding by the guidelines, thus accepting part of the responsibility for the section’s quality.

When establishing section guidelines, clearly distinguish between the course policies and the section guidelines. The purpose of course policies is to set out course requirements, establish penalties for absences or late work, and so forth. Policies are laid down by the instructor at the start of the course. The purpose of discussion guidelines is to facilitate group discussions. To avoid confusion, course policies should be clearly laid down before discussion guidelines are created.

Discussion guidelines are established to facilitate discussion. They ensure that the class environment is respectful and that everyone has an opportunity to participate. More specifically, discussion guidelines have these functions:

  • Encourage students to work collaboratively in developing a respectful environment.
  • Give students a stake in abiding by the agreed-upon guidelines.
  • Establish a process of group participation rather than instructor-led lecture.
  • Create an atmosphere in which all students feel free to participate.
  • Remind students of the need for respect, openness, and sensitivity.
  • Establish the tone for section by encouraging group interaction and feedback.
  • Establish the discussion section as a responsibility of both the student and the GSI.

Before you create discussion guidelines, explain their purpose and the reason you have chosen to create them as a group rather than simply stipulating them yourself. We describe below three different methods for creating discussion guidelines.

Small Group Method

  • Break students into groups of three or four. Give each group an index card and ask them to list two guidelines they think are important for a good discussion section. Allow them five to ten minutes to complete the activity.
  • Go around the room and ask each group for their guidelines. Write the guidelines on the board. Ask the groups to explain their reasons for suggesting a particular guideline and to specify what they mean if the guideline they suggest is vague. There may be some overlap.
  • After all of the groups have given their guidelines, ask the entire class if there are any other ones that they would like to add to the board. This is a good time to add or share any that you might have that weren’t suggested by the groups.
  • Open the list up for discussion. Let the students debate the value of specific guidelines or the expectations underlying them.
  • At the end of the discussion, ask the students to vote on the list. This allows them to decide as a class which guidelines they would like to have for the semester.
  • Record the guidelines. Copy the list and bring it to section the following week. This way all students have copies that they can refer to over the semester.
  • Periodically, have the class take a moment to evaluate whether the discussion guidelines established at the beginning of the semester are being followed and if they work.

Developed by Heather McCarty, Ph.D., Sociology

Brookfield and Preskill’s Method

  • Ask the students to think about the best group discussions they have been involved in. What happened that made these discussions so satisfying?
  • Next ask the students to think about the worst group discussion in which they have been involved. What happened that made these discussions so unsatisfactory?
  • For each of the characteristics, have the students suggest three things that the group might do to ensure that these characteristics are present or not present as the case may be.
  • Use the students’ suggestions to draft a set of ground rules on which you all agree.
  • Record the guidelines. Copy the list and bring it to section the following week. This way all students have copies that they can refer to over the semester.
  • Periodically, have the class take a moment to evaluate whether the guidelines established at the beginning of the semester are being followed and whether they work.

Adapted from Brookfield, S. and Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Acronym Method

  • Write the words “Discussion Guidelines” on the top of the board. Write the word “ROPES” along the left hand side of the board (or use a similar word).
  • Explain that, like a safety net, the ROPES will serve as communally agreed-upon guidelines to which everyone will adhere during the discussion section.
  • Elicit from the students words (related to discussion guidelines) that begin with those letters. Ask the students to explain why they have recommended a word and what it means to them. For example, R: respect, responsibility; O: openness, etc.
  • Add your own suggestions.
  • Ask for a general consensus about which guidelines are chosen.
  • Record the guidelines. Copy the list and bring it to section the following week. This way all students have copies that they can refer to over the semester.
  • Periodically, have the class take a moment to evaluate whether the guidelines established at the beginning of the semester are being followed and if they work.

 

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