How to Participate in Your College Discussion Class


The thought of having an entire class devoted to “discussion” can seem daunting, especially if you didn’t have elaborate class discussions during high school.

In this article, we provide an overview of discussion classes: what to expect and what’s in it for you. We also share tips for participating in discussion classes: how to prepare before class, what to do in class, and how to wrap it up after class.




What is a discussion class?

Discussion classes, or sections, are typically a required component of a large lecture class. They offer a time when smaller groups of students (typically less than 30) meet with a graduate student instructor, teaching assistant, or professor to review class content, go over questions, discuss the readings, and do some additional work. Discussion classes also offer an opportunity to connect with classmates about the larger course, which is hard to do in a lecture hall of 200+ students.

What do you do in a discussion class?

Depending on the course you’re in, discussion classes can take different forms. For example, in a science or math course, you’ll likely use discussion class time to complete problem sets. In a liberal arts course like English or political science, you’ll be more likely to use that time to review lectures and discuss the readings.

What your instructor is thinking

From the perspective of your instructor, discussion classes provide an opportunity to discuss and teach, in more detail, the materials that were taught during lecture and assigned in the readings. Discussion sections are designed to provide you and your classmates with a greater understanding of the materials and overall subject of the course.

What’s in it for you

From your perspective, a discussion section is a beneficial time to engage with the course material, gain a better grasp of what you’re studying, and show your instructor you’re on top of it. Discussion section allows the instructor to put a name with your face, which can be invaluable, especially if you are attending office hours or planning on it. Further, it allows you to differentiate yourself in a smaller pool of students. A discussion is only as good as its participants. If students are unprepared, tired, or disinterested, the discussion will suffer. Over time, your instructor will recognize and remember the students who contribute. Whether you’re one of them or not, you’ll see that reflected in the grade you receive at the end of the semester.

Do I have to participate in my discussion class?

Check your syllabus, but participation in your discussion class is almost always factored into your course grade for overall class participation. Discussion is usually taken into account with other things like attendance, turning in assignments on time, and completing online discussion prompts.



Finally, you asked! Let's get to it.

BEFORE CLASS | How to prepare for the discussion

Participating in a discussion class doesn’t start there!

Know the material. Do the readings and assignments, and review previous lecture notes before the discussion. This provides the foundation for being able to contribute.

Write down questions on ideas and concepts you don’t understand. Discussion section is designed to accommodate questions that cannot be asked during a large lecture.

Practice answering the questions “how would you summarize the readings?” and “what did you think about the readings?” These are the two most common questions instructors ask at the beginning of a discussion class.

Write down 3-5 talking points. What are your top three takeaways from the reading or assignment? What do you agree or disagree with? Does it relate to something else you already studied in the class or to current events?

Practice what you want to say. Talk through your notes verbally. Ask yourself questions the instructor might ask the class, then practice possible answers.

Want to go the extra mile? Find additional information you can bring to the discussion. Discussions are more interesting when students bring fresh perspectives or ideas. Since most students attend the same lecture and read the same materials, you’ll have to do a little bit extra work to provide more value to the conversation. This would require going outside of the required reading and the lectures – find supplementary information by reading related news articles and digging into related concepts on the Internet, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.

Preparing for discussion also includes attending lecture regularly, completing all assignments and readings, and attending office hours with your discussion section instructor, all of which can make it easier for you to participate during class.

DURING CLASS | How to participate in the discussion

Sit in the front, visible to the instructor. It will be easier to get their attention to make a comment or ask a question.

Go for the low hanging fruit. As the class is getting warmed up for discussion, you might as well answer the easy stuff. The longer you go without getting involved, the more difficult you may find it to contribute. Commenting earlier on will also ensure that someone else does not comment or ask the question you were planning on asking.

Consult your notes you prepared for class and check off items as they’re discussed and answered. For items that haven’t been answered, find a good time to bring up your talking point or question, either when there’s a bout of silence or right after a related point has been raised.

Aim to contribute to the conversation in a thoughtful way. Don’t make a comment just to make a comment.

Make your comments succinct. Get to the point. Less is more.

Don’t get hung up on sounding like Einstein. Be yourself.

Nervous about participating? Imagine you’re only talking to one person. You might even direct your body language toward one person in the room to start, like your instructor or a fellow student.

Extra nervous about participating? Avoidance is not the answer, especially if you want a good grade. Start by contributing a short comment or posing a question. You can share longer comments as you become more comfortable over time.

Don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know,” but don’t use it as a security blanket either.

After a few class sessions you’ll be able to anticipate the flow of the discussion class. You’ll also have a better sense of what types of questions your instructor will ask, as well as what they expect from students in the class.

AFTER CLASS | How to wrap it up

Satisfied with your participation?
Great! Now get back to work :)

Looking to improve for next time?
Did you complete all of the steps outlined above? If not, make sure you complete them before the next class. If you feel that you’re still hard pressed to proactively contribute, arrange a time to talk to your instructor outside of class. Approach them at the end of class or send them an email, and let them know you’re having a hard time making contributions to the discussion and that you’d like to talk with them about ways to improve. When you meet up, talk about two things: (1) ways you can get more involved in the discussion, and (2) ways your instructor can help you get more involved in the discussion - maybe they can ask you a question or ask for your opinion as a part of the natural flow of the conversation.

Steve Chang
CSO, Propeller Collective

Have other tips for participating in discussion classes?
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