Discussion section hacks

Jan. 7, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Every once in a while, students may budget their time incorrectly and find themselves scrambling to complete a hefty reading assignment before class. In the event that frantically skimming 200 pages the night before a 9 a.m. does not properly equip you for class, you need to have a backup plan to fulfill that pesky participation grade. Here’s the backup plan:

The situation: You have time to complete a portion of the reading, but not all of it.

The strategy:

Before class: If it’s a longer piece, first read the abstract (if there is one) and the introduction and conclusion. This will provide a general overview of the piece and should outline the author’s main arguments. If time allows, read one sub-section of the piece carefully. Instead of rushing through the entire article without truly processing the information, focus on one manageable component of it and think of a comment or two to make during class. One keen, specific comment will give the illusion that you thoroughly read the entire piece.

In class: Talk first! Talking first helps get that participation comment out of the way and ensures that you will not run out of things to comment on. With a limited scope of knowledge on the reading, coming up with new comments becomes more difficult the longer you wait.

Remember: You are in class to learn, not to make perfect comments! Odds are the rest of your classmates are not perfect reading machines. Do not let the fear of saying the wrong thing inhibit learning.


The Situation: You didn’t do any of the reading, at all.

The Strategy:

During class, be present. Listen intently to the professor because they may provide some background on the reading or highlight a few major themes. Also, wait to speak. As someone with no knowledge of the reading, the goal is simply to make one or two comments for the participation grade, not to take time away from the students who are prepared. Listen to other’s comments and try to get a sense of the topic of the reading. Eventually, chime in with one of the following:

  • A general agreement comment: Simply agree with a classmate and perhaps add a connection between the topic and today’s world, your personal life or another comment mentioned by a different classmate. Adding the connection gives the comment more depth without requiring much previous information on the reading. Examples include: “I agree, and I think that’s a really important point especially given the [ _____ proliferent in society today / ____ which I notice in my own life],” or, “I think that’s a really interesting point, especially in relation to what [classmate’s name] said earlier about [topic]. It’s clear that these two points [present contradicting ideas / highlight the same theme].”
  • A question: One of the easiest ways to participate with little to no knowledge on a subject is to ask a question.
  • A personal opinion: Even without doing the reading, you can usually develop an opinion on another’s comment or an idea illuminated in class.

Although this strategy may help a student survive class in a time of emergency, it will not be able to carry you through the whole class. So, try to catch up on the reading at some point. Good luck!


Contact Phoebe Quinton at pquinton ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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