Sections: What Are They Good For?

I’m currently enjoying my last quarter on the Farm. After three and two-thirds years, I can say with some confidence that I’m very impressed with Stanford’s academic programs. My courses — barring the occasional infuriating exception — have been challenging, interesting, well taught, and well worth the time. But there’s one thing about the Stanford approach to coursework that still drives me absolutely crazy: the discussion section.

A section, in my opinion, first ought to add unique value to a course; that is, it ought to do something that lecture, personal study, or officer hours cannot. And, at least in my limited experience, about two-thirds of the sections offered at Stanford fail miserably at this task. The problem is twofold: many sections are inherently superfluous, and many others are so poorly designed that they fail to supplement the lecture component.

There are obviously some courses that benefit greatly from the inclusion of a section component: philosophy, religious studies, English, and other such humanistic topics are incomplete without intensive, small-group discussion. The “journal club” model used by many advanced science courses, in which students analyze and comment on contemporary scientific publications, is also very helpful.

These types of sections assume that students already know “the facts” from lecture or reading, and focus on promoting greater engagement with the material: reaction, analysis, critical thinking. They add value to courses because this kind of discussion is very difficult to do in a big lecture hall or at home in front of a computer.

The problem is that the section model has been widely adopted by introductory courses, which are of necessity focused on teaching students the basic facts of their academic discipline, and not on higher criticism and analysis. In my experience, these kinds of courses inevitably turn their “discussion sections” into glorified mandatory office hours, in which students do practice problems and ask the TA questions. The section becomes a sort of repeat or make-up lecture in miniature, and thus fails to add value to the course.

This system is also horribly inefficient because the students do not have a common base of knowledge; consequently, the least prepared students scramble frantically to keep up and the more advanced students are bored out of their skulls. More often than not, the TA spends most of her time responding to the questions of a few students, which may not be relevant for the rest of the class. These “discussion sections” should be made optional or phased out in favor of expanded office hours. We’re supposed to be independent, responsible adults; it’s our responsibility to seek academic help if we need it, and we shouldn’t expect professors to force us to get help by making sections mandatory.

But even sections that have the potential to add some value often fail to do so because they’re poorly executed. Misguided participation policies that reward students for simply speaking incentivize mindless, circling conversations. Sections that could focus on analysis and debate spend too much time on review from lecture; I’ve even had to fill out worksheets about lecture material, a particularly odious kind of busywork that I thought I left behind in seventh grade. Many section leaders aren’t willing to allow the kind of open, lively debate that makes discussion sections worthwhile. Even the physical environment is often wrong: I’ve participated in several sections that met in small lecture halls, which by naturally inhibit discussion between students and encourage passivity.

So what’s to be done? Professors and TAs should take a good, hard look at their discussion sections to see if they really add any academic value. Faculty members who run introductory courses should (in general) eliminate their sections or turn them into optional office hours. And the people in charge of running sections associated with advanced courses or humanities classes should make sure that their sections are structured to promote critical engagement, analysis, and debate. Otherwise, sections will continue to be a blot on Stanford’s otherwise stellar academic programs.

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