Discussion Sections as Labs

When I was in college, all my discussion sections had the same structure. The Teaching Assistant (TA) would give a short lecture that repeated the greatest hits of the main lecture and then do problems on the board from our last homework assignment, focusing on the ones we had screwed up the most. Sometimes there would be a few minutes at the end where he or she would ask us if we had any questions. None of this was particularly helpful, and if we had been given written solutions to the homework, section would have been even less helpful. I structured my sections this way when I was a TA in grad school, and as far as I can tell, most college sections (at least for science/math/social science classes) are run the same way today.

This fall, I’m going to try something completely different in my big lecture class (Econometrics and Data Analysis I): We are going to run sections like labs. I’ve been doing something similar when I teach biostatistics in medical school for two years now and it’s been a very effective way to give students practice using the methods I teach to analyze real data.

Students will bring their laptops with data analysis software installed to section each week. They will get a one page assignment to complete within the hour. The assignment will be a research question, a new (real world) data set, and a list of conceptual steps they need to follow to answer the question. They will need to think hard about how to apply the methods we covered in lecture that week to do the work. The labs will get more involved as the students build up their skills during the semester.

Students will spend the entire hour interacting with their computers and each other, with an expert (the TA) nearby to help with any issues that come up. In this way, the experience is very different from working on a problem set at home or in a computer lab where getting stuck on something small for hours is common. Struggling with a problem is good for learning, but banging your head against a wall isn’t always an efficient use of time. In addition, students will work in pairs and take turns driving–This discourage wandering over to Facebook and encourage peer-to-peer teaching and learning.

In addition to being a better use of time for the students, this set up also optimizes the time of the Teaching Assistants. Since I won’t have time to personally get to know every one of my students and help them with their individual concerns, I’ll be relying on my TA’s to do this. In other words, I want my TA’s doing human things that can’t be automated.