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Helping Graduate Teaching Assistants Lead Discussions with Undergraduate Students

"Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are frequently asked to lead discussion groups. These groups generally take the form of tutorials, review sessions, or problem-based learning classes. In their preparation, what to teach is often emphasized over how to teach. The primary intent of this paper is to provide a few simple teaching strategies for GTAs, but our ideas are germane to any biology educator.

Many graduate students jump at the opportunity to lead discussion groups (also called recitation sections, tutorial groups, problem-solving sessions, and so forth) for undergraduate biology courses. Reasons for this are many, but often involve the possibility of exploring an interest in teaching. Graduate students who are selected to be graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are typically assigned classes with between 8 to 20 undergraduates, equipped with the course syllabus, course textbook, assignment sheets, and so forth, but few directions on how to teach.

Many universities require weekly meetings for the GTAs with the course professors, but the focus of these meetings is ensuring that each GTA knows what to teach. The issues surrounding how to teach are rarely discussed. Some of the basic tenets of how to teach include facilitating discussions, getting students to talk, teaching students to work together, and addressing the problem of students being unprepared.


GTAs in biology are typically master’s or doctoral students who have had extensive experience with biology coursework, but little, if any, experience with teaching. The September 26, 2003, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that some institutions, such as Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and the University of New Hampshire, are better preparing GTAs for teaching by instituting teacher-training workshops (Bartlett 2003).

Resources for the general improvement of teaching are abundant; most major universities house centers and websites devoted to improving teaching. (See, for example Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.) Many books, such as Teaching Tips (McKeachie 1999), focus on teaching and learning. Despite the vast wealth of resources, biology GTAs and their mentors rarely use teaching resources or talk about teaching, but rather focus on content.

The impetus for this article was derived from conversations between course professors and GTAs during weekly curriculum meetings; we also had several informal conversations with the course professors and GTAs about teaching and learning physiology. In both the meetings and conversations, common themes emerged. The research methods used to gather data were far from ideal in that no permanent records of the conversations were maintained and no experimental design was used. Despite these limitations, tangible and useful strategies were developed to help GTAs become better teachers.

Four generalizations can be made about GTAs and teaching. First, many universities depend on GTAs for teaching undergraduate students. Second, the teaching experiences of GTAs range widely—some have wonderful experiences and decide to pursue a career in teaching biology, whereas others have terrible experiences and leave the classroom in favor of other options. Third, the learning experiences of undergraduates who are enrolled in classes taught by GTAs are highly variable. And fourth, GTAs are given assistance in terms of curriculum (what to teach), but are typically offered little assistance on instructional strategies (how to teach). To learn more, we reviewed teaching strategies for GTAs who want to facilitate productive and enjoyable discussion groups and improve biology education for undergraduates.

Standard Discussion Settings

Undergraduate students are often inexperienced with the discussion format. They are, however, extremely familiar with the lecture setting where they can sit passively, take a few notes, and stay silent for an entire course. Therefore, undergraduates usually behave in discussions like they behave in lectures—very passively. GTAs who lead discussion groups, however, are accustomed to participating in discussion groups with fellow graduate students, which are usually quite functional and interactive. But they are new to facilitating such exchanges, especially with inexperienced undergraduate students. One of the biggest mistakes GTAs make is assuming that undergraduate students know how to function in discussion groups, which leads to the common GTA question, or complaint, “Why won’t they talk?” When the undergraduates don’t talk, GTAs sometimes revert to lecturing (i.e., talking about biology without student input). This makes undergraduates comfortable, because they are once again in a domain with which they are familiar.

A good discussion group is generally characterized by all students being prepared and willing to participate and by a GTA who mostly listens and only occasionally interjects. Only rarely does such a group happen simply by chance. More typically, students show up unprepared or at least underprepared and are reluctant to talk, and the GTAs are underprepared and do not know what to do when they are faced with a wall of silence from their students. It is therefore necessary for GTAs to be equipped with a few strategies to facilitate the development of a healthy discussion group.

Proposed Strategies

Several teaching strategies can help transform a silent and unproductive discussion group into something much more constructive and enjoyable. The transformation process requires work and preparation by the GTA, though, and this process must start on the first day of class.

Room arrangement. Even before classes begin, GTAs can do something to promote discussions. Prior to class, they can arrange the tables and chairs so that each person can see everyone else in the group. Arranging chairs may seem trivial, but more than 100 years of research on human behavior indicates that people are much more likely to talk if they are seated in a circle, or a rectangle, as opposed to rows (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 1991). If the class list indicates that there will be 15 students, there should be 16 or 17 chairs positioned in a circle, and thus there is no option but to join the group.

Organization. It is especially important to be organized in the first few minutes of class because these are the most important of the entire course. During those first few minutes, the students gather information such as “Who is this person?” “What will I have to do in here?” “How much work will I be expected to do?” “Can I goof off in here?” It is extremely important for GTAs to clearly answer unspoken questions quickly. The general tone of the discussion group is set for the entire semester in the first few minutes of the very first session. This means that if a GTA expects students to be talking during the course, they should be talking in the first 10 minutes.

Group introductions. An excellent means of initiating talking is through group introductions. The key to a good introduction activity is speed and tone; no one individual should talk for more than one minute, and the information provided should give some insight into students’ interests and personalities. For example, each individual should say his or her name, hometown, favorite movie or book, and name something like a career goal or dream job. (See Jensen, Moore, and Hatch 2002 for more information on group introductions.) The goals of the group introduction are to let students get to know each other and to get them accustomed to speaking up during class time.

First Biology Activity

For many discussion sections, the first meeting is dominated by giving course instructions and assigning work to be completed for the next week. An alternative to dismissing students early on the first day is to begin the first assignment in class to help students learn biology and demonstrate the expectations of the class. Generally, it’s unrealistic to expect students to complete an assignment during the first class meeting, but the GTA can develop a set of tangential questions that relate to the first assignment. For example, if cardiophysiology is the topic of the week-two assignment, and the assigned question set is complex, the GTA may develop his or her own short assignment that can be completed in 10 or 15 minutes of the first class session. For example, the GTA could ask students to do the following:

  • Define the terms cardiac output, stroke volume, and heart rate.
  • Explain how stroke volume relates to cardiac output.
  • List a few factors that can affect heart rate.
  • List a few factors that can affect stroke volume.

A key component here is that the questions must be answerable, with one or two challenging questions that could even be marked difficult.

To implement this activity, the GTA could first give students the questions and readings and tell them what they are to accomplish, For instance, he or she might say, “You will leave the room for 15 minutes, read pages x to y from your text, and answer the questions on this paper. After 15 minutes we will meet back in this room and discuss the questions.” Having students leave the room to read and write out answers is a good tactic on the first day because it makes a point that students are not supposed to be doing homework during the discussions. Another option is for the GTA to leave the room for 15 minutes while the students complete the assignment. The message conveyed thus is that students are not to be doing their homework when the GTA is meeting with the class. After students return to class, the GTA could lead a discussion using the questions and answers to the questions.

To begin a discussion, the worst question a GTA can ask is “Are there any questions?” It is far better to direct the discussion in an ordered manner. For instance, he or she might say, “Let’s start with question 1.” The phrasing and direction of the question is critical; if a question is directed at everybody, a response will frequently come from nobody. A good technique for getting students to talk is to call on them by name: “Andrew, what’s cardiac output?” “Graham, what’s the relationship between stroke volume and cardiac output?”

Using Exam Questions

Two common student questions in all realms of education are “Do we have to know this?” and “Will this be on the test?” It is sometimes disheartening for teachers to hear these phrases repeated over and over again, but helping students prepare for exams and reviewing exams are two useful strategies for GTAs. Students acquire example test questions in many ways. For instance, some professors provide a few example questions in their syllabi, or instructors hand them out prior to an exam. Additionally, many schools post old exams online or in the library; other schools allow students to keep their old exams, and questions get passed among students from year to year.

No matter how they are attained, example test questions are very good stimuli for promoting class discussions. Frequently, students will simply want the answers, but merely providing answers is not beneficial. It is important to notify students that it is very unlikely that questions are repeated from one exam to the next, but that by practicing forming and critiquing responses to old exam questions they are learning both biology and test-taking skills. Several different teaching strategies can be used in conjunction with example test questions.

Essay Questions

To answer an essay question, students frequently need to combine concepts and ideas in a coherent paragraph. To help students with this task, the GTA can post an example essay question for everyone to see and then ask the group for key words that should be used within the body of the answer. The intent of this brainstorming session is not to produce the final answer, but simply to start forming an answer. Next, the GTA should assign individual students one or two of the key words and have them write a sentence or two that contains the key terms. Next, he or she should have individuals report on their sentences, either in writing or verbally, and then have students combine the sentences into a coherent paragraph.

The key is that the process of constructing an answer to a complex question is demonstrated—linking key words to sentences and sentences to paragraphs. After students have developed answers to the question, volunteers can be called upon to post their responses for all to see, and the group can then critique the responses. If students are not bold enough to display their answers, the GTA can post a few different hypothetical answers that he or she derives.

If possible, the GTA should develop a set of answers to one essay question that shows different levels of understanding and then have students evaluate the responses. For instance: “What’s good about this answer?” “What’s missing?” “How many marks would this answer receive?” This process helps students understand that answers to essay questions need to be checked to see if they have been completely answered.

Multiple-Choice Questions

The temptation to merely provide answers to publicly known multiple-choice questions is strong, but is ineffective at helping students prepare for new questions. A better approach is to have every student in the group answer a set of multiple-choice questions and then go through the responses question by question. The GTA can ask, “How many have A for question 1? How many have B?” And so forth. The GTA can then go through each response with prompts such as “Why is A wrong?” “Why is B better than C?”

Another approach is to give students old multiple-choice questions and ask them to formulate their own set of test questions. For example, each student could write two or three multiple-choice questions and then exchange questions with other members of the groups. By doing this, students practice both constructing and answering questions while refining their knowledge of biology. If time permits, a quick introduction to Bloom’s question taxonomy may be beneficial (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001). Many undergraduate students are comfortable answering knowledge and comprehension questions but have difficulty with analysis, synthesis, and evaluation questions. An outline and discussion of Bloom’s question taxonomy may provide insight into why some questions are more difficult than others, and it may give insight into new study strategies.

Post-Exam Discussions

Most students feel that they study hard and are well prepared for exams. However, after an exam, emotions are frequently tense because the marks are not as high as expected. “Why is my answer wrong?” “What was the right answer?” “What were they looking for?” “Why are they being so picky?” To begin an exam-review session, it is good to let students first inspect their exams for a few minutes in silence and then ask a few open-ended questions such as “Was it more difficult than you expected?” After allowing students to vent their general opinions of the exam, the GTA should then go through the questions in a systematic manner.

A simple method for reviewing test questions is to find out the most frequently missed questions (i.e., an item analysis) and then use those items as the basis for a discussion. For essay questions, the GTA can start the discussion by posting a few of the key concepts that must be contained in the answers. Students can then examine their own answers for the presence or absence of those concepts. If the questions were multiple-choice, each question could then be critiqued by answering such questions as “Why is A wrong?” By discussing why answers are wrong, right, or incomplete, students learn biology and improve their test-taking skills. After walking through the exam, it is good to close the discussion by asking, “How are you going to prepare for the next exam?” Or, “Is there anything we can do in this group to help you prepare for the next exam?”

Using Group Work

Group work has been studied by education psychologists for many years and, if used properly, works extremely well; if used improperly, it can be disastrous (Johnson and Johnson 1989). Unfortunately, constructing truly cooperative groups requires years of teaching experience, and GTAs who attempt group work frequently encounter problems. Being new to both leading discussions and group learning, it is best to keep group activities short (10 to 15 minutes) and have clear and attainable goals. Additionally, during the first few discussion sections, the GTA should write out a short lesson plan such as the one illustrated in Figure 1.

  • Figure 1. Example lesson plan involving group work.
  • Group size: Two or three.
  • Time: 15 minutes
  • Product: Each group will hand in one piece of paper with the answers to the following five questions. All members of the group should sign their names to the page containing the answers. During the discussion, each person in a group should be able to answer questions regarding any of the scientific terms found in any of the questions. Be prepared to individually go to the board and draw a diagram of the heart to answer questions 3 and 4.
  • Questions:
    1. Explain the relationship between stroke volume, heart rate, and cardiac output.
    2. Explain how preload and after-load are related to stroke volume.
    3. During ventricular diastole, describe the status of the four heart valves.
    4. During atrial systole, describe the status of the four different heart valves.
    5. Explain Starling’s Law of the heart.

When GTAs require group work, students will sometimes ask “Why do we have to do this in groups?” The honest answer is likely “I don’t know!” A better answer is that research has shown that working in groups promotes better understanding of complex topics as compared to working individually (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 1991). There are four rules for establishing functional groups:

  • Group size should be limited to no more than two or three students. When four or more students are in a group there will be often be someone daydreaming or not entirely engaged with the activity.
  • Give clear directions during group work—preferably posted for all to see. Prior to working in groups, students should know how much time they have to work and have a clear sense of what products are to be produced.
  • Watch out for parasites (the human kind). A common, and sometimes valid, complaint of group work is “I end up doing everything!” It is extremely important for every group member to contribute to the group and the final product. Individual accountability is a key component of group work and can be promoted many ways—such as having each person answer questions individually (either verbally or on a written quiz) after a group activity or by giving a short individual quiz at the end of a group activity.
  • Promote positive interdependence by breaking up the tasks. For example, have individual group members be responsible for different questions, and have the whole group responsible for a couple of others.

While the groups are working, the GTA should walk around the room and listen to each group as they work. The GTA should not just sit in his or her chair and should not leave the room. One good habit is to announce time warnings: “2 minutes remaining,” “1 minute left,” and “OK, let’s get started.” The GTA may elect to help student groups during the activity; the only critical issue here is that he or she treats every group equally.

After the time limit has expired, the GTA can randomly call on a group to answer one specific question in the assignment. The students in that group should be reading their answers so the “talking” is easy. After the answer has been read, the GTA should look at the other students and ask “Well, what do you think, does that sound right?” After the first question has been sufficiently answered, which may be very quick or lead to a lengthy discussion, the GTA should move on to another group and repeat the process.

Assign a Discussion Leader

After the first couple of meetings of a discussion group, a common strategy is to assign a student discussion leader. This typically involves assigning the class a paper or book chapter and then delegating the job of “discussion leader” to one of the students (done usually through sign-up sheets). The GTA should sign up to be the first leader and model the expectations for students. He or she should also have some product that the leader submits to ensure that he or she is prepared to lead the discussion (e.g., a list of discussion questions). This method sometimes works well, but undoubtedly there will be student leaders who are not prepared. At all times, the GTA should be prepared to take over the job of discussion leader when necessary.

After a Bad Day

Every teacher has bad days, and GTAs will encounter a few. Getting mad and yelling at students, lecturing for long stretches of time, having nobody contribute to a discussion, and leaving the room crying are signs of having a bad day. A key difference between good and poor teachers is that good teachers reflect on the events in the classroom and think “How can I make that better?” and “What should I do differently next time?”

If everyone in the room knows that the GTA had a bad day, it is essential to address those events immediately at the next session. “I would like to say a few words on what went wrong last time” is a good place to start. It is helpful after a bad day to restate the goals of the session (e.g., “to help you learn biology and do well on the exams”) and let students know the reasons behind the actions—why it is important for them to engage in discussions, why they should work in groups, and so forth.

If an individual student is causing problems, it is important to talk to that student outside of the regular class session to clear the air and discuss expectations. In severe cases, it may become necessary to have the course supervisor mediate such meetings. GTAs, and all educators for that matter, do not have the luxury of starting over each week. Students remember “who you are” from one week to the next, and sometimes attempts must be made to reconcile unpleasant events from the previous class meetings. In extreme cases, we recommend bringing food for everyone, apologizing, and vowing publicly to do better.


A common mistake of many GTAs is going into a discussion session knowing what topics to teach, but not knowing how to teach them. Just as students learn biology in their discussion groups, GTAs should learn about teaching through discussion with other GTAs and the course supervisors. Reading about teaching strategies is a good start, but incorporating new teaching tactics, thinking about students’ reactions, and talking to others about teaching and learning are all critical to developing effective teaching skills.

Over time, a discussion group composed of undergraduates should be able to initiate conversations without much prodding from the GTA; but during the first few weeks of the semester, the GTA must be well prepared to pose specific questions and/or arrange highly structured activities. It is essential to have a plan for what to do if no one talks or if no one is prepared. The above strategies are intended to get GTAs started in the process of developing a productive discussion group. With practice, leading discussion groups gets easier and becomes almost routine as more teaching strategies are acquired."



Anderson, L., and D.A. Krathwohl. 2001. Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bartlett, T. 2003.The first thing about teaching: Colleges try harder to prepare graduate assistants for the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education 50 (5): A10.

Jensen, M., R. Moore, and J. Hatch. 2002. Cooperative learning part II, Cooperative group activities for the first week of class: Setting the tone with group web pages. American Biology Teacher 64 (2): 87–91.

Johnson, D., and R. Johnson. 1989. Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D., R. Johnson, and K. Smith. 1991. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

McKeachie, W.J. 1999. Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.