A Calculus class for 1st year students may have two subclasses (with two different lecturers) :

  • The main class (which covers the theories and concept),
  • and the 'response' class (which provides and explain how to solve problems in exercises)

For the latter, what is the ideal way to teach?

Some logical ideas that have been think of are :

  • Give them problems (homework) and call some students forward to work on the board in the next meeting

  • Give open book quizzes (open book so that the students are also studying at the same time)

  • Give problems and explanation as many as possible? (sometimes does this makes students lazy or not..?)

  • Some facts : several students that rarely focus on the lecture (skip classes, or even working on other things inside the class) have higher grades. I presume that online resources (such as Khan Academy, Youtube, ... works better for them?

  • Use slides or the board?


  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Some facts : several students that rarely focus on the lecture (skip classes, or even working on other things inside the class) have higher grades. I presume that online resources (such as Khan Academy, Youtube, ... works better for them?" Rather than online videos, they may be working problems from the textbook. Or they may just be students with prior experience...common nowadays. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Mar 23, 2018 at 22:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your question feels very broad--so many subquestions related to what is called "discussion section" in the US. Is this a theoretical question or related to your job? What country and level of school? Also, how much of a time split is there between the main lectures and the discussion sections. And is any problem solving work being done in the main lectures or is it purely derivations and theory: it affects if you can do less examples and more practice in discussion sections. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Mar 23, 2018 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @guest thanks. The response class is only 2 hours in 1 meeting per week, the main class is 3 hours in 1 meeting per week. The focus is on the ideal / best known ways, undergraduate level. $\endgroup$
    – Redsbefall
    Mar 25, 2018 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ When solving problems (point 3) I oftentimes combine real solutions with fallacious ones and ask them to figure out what went wrong. For example, one can calculate $\lim_{x \to \infty} \frac{x + \cos x}{x} = 1$; however, applying L'Hôpital leads to $\lim_{x \to \infty} 1 -\sin x$ which does not exist. Hence, we "prove" that $1$ does not exist. This usually grabs the attention of students that get bored by solving problems and promotes the thought-process when asked to figure out "what went wrong" (either in-class or homework). $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2018 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RodrigoZepeda thanks. But another problem would be the students sometimes disengaged if they meet something that is quite "intimidating", also they like to talk to each other so much. I think i can scale your example.. $\endgroup$
    – Redsbefall
    Mar 31, 2018 at 16:09

2 Answers 2


My approach would likely be as follows:

  1. Reserve time for questions. In my experience this will not actually take much of the time. Don't be afraid to not answer certain questions. For example, "what do you think is on the next test" is usually not wise to entertain. Unless you are writing the test and have a specific sense of how to use that question to leverage studying. For example, I will sometimes ask in return, "well, tell me something you're not done studying".

  2. Prepare a few examples to give lecture style. Perhaps just 1/3 of the time for this, but it assures there is real content delivered. This could be at the beginning, middle or end, in fact all three of these can be rearranged as you see fit for your audience and setting.

  3. Put all the students names on 3x5 cards. Write about 5-10 problems on the board and randomly select names to work those problems. Give them 10 or so minutes and emphasize that everybody should be trying to work through the problems to follow along. When the time is up, go through the problems critiquing both answers and presentation. Mark the cards with dates and short description for your record. Next time, go to new students, or for fun repeat to keep them on their toes. Eventually everybody comes up front to work problems in this fairly low-pressure setting. This works best if you have some course points to assign. If you have no influence over their grade then sadly I have not much hope. I mean, try talking to people anywhere about math for 2 hours when you have no control over their grade. You'll find yourself alone in a room long before the end. (statistically, people are rarely mathematicians, so the sentence before is said in that manner of thinking)

The benefit of 3. is it gives them incentive to work on the class regularly and it gives you a chance to warn against common mistakes and/or to show better ways to solve the given problems. Finally, it is probably useful for the students to see that everybody (for the most part) struggles with the material. Too often students refuse to ask questions because they think they are alone in their confusion. In fact, the confusion is the rule. Ideally, this process helps some of the students to start asking good questions. We probably need to teach them what is a "good question", but I'll leave that for another post.

  • $\begingroup$ Awesome tactical suggestions. Moral plus one. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Mar 26, 2018 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @guest thanks. I've been toying with this technique this semester (3.) It works annoyingly well, or I have a really good class, not sure which yet. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2018 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ "ride the winning horse" ;-) $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Mar 26, 2018 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ @TheChef i am 8 years difference with the students, would it still be effective..? I usually give homeworks, but very few that wants to come forward in class to show their solutions. How do u handle uncooperative students, especially in class? $\endgroup$
    – Redsbefall
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Arief: Do problems in class and call on students or bring them to the board. You don't have to do it 100% of the time, but do enough to get them involved. This also uses their time effectively. They are actually practicing IN CLASS. Remember they do not have unlimited time outside of class. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Mar 29, 2018 at 16:01
  1. To the extent the class does not cover problem solving, you should cover a a few in lecture style as examples. I don't totally believe (maybe don't want to believe) that the regular class is all derivations and theory and no example problems. But if so, definitely showing some examples would be helpful.

  2. Emphasis even in case of 1, should be on drill still though. Pop quizzes, work together assignments, kids to the board, etc.

  3. When explaining example problems, you will need to be efficient. Don't have time to cover all, so cover things that get messed up most often or are most likely to be covered on tests.

  4. I would keep the tone in your section more collaborative and informal and friendly than the normal class. More "buddy telling you how to get it done" and less "herr doktor professor". Students love feeling like they are getting the inside scoop and cutting through the pretensions.

  5. Use the board rather than slides. If you want super extra credit A+ points, than compose your remarks ahead of time. But still do the exposition on the board, rather than slides. Slides are a crutch. And they are so much different in connection than writing as you go. When you show slides, it's like showing the book. When you write on the board, you are a fellow warrior fighting in the trenches. Maybe a little bit better of one. But still "in the fight".

  6. Talk to other TAs and get their experience. Coming here was a nice step. But do it IRL. And get to the nitty gritty (time management, discipline, loudness, handwriting, etc.) Not just high level stuff.

  7. You avoided the question about country and student ability. Realize that some issues of pedagogy are the same from CalTech to RN JuCo. But in other cases, it makes a difference what the student limitations are in brains, desire, time, prep, etc. Think about these variables. Pedagogy is not a linear y(x) function but nonlinear, multifunction and full of stochastic noise (and student ability, etc. are confounding variables to some sort of same for everyone solutuon)


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