I'm a math grad student, and next semester I start TAing a calculus class for the first time. We all know about the standard recitations: instructor gives short lecture on some more difficult topic from class, then spends the rest of class solving homework problems on the board. I personally find such recitations extremely boring, and I have a hard time seeing how students (who often don't even take notes!) can learn anything useful from a recitation like this. Most students I know just show up because the problems the TA solves are free marks on the homework.

I'm wondering about more interactive ways to run a recitation. Right now I'm thinking about making the students attempt all problems using think-pair-share. Students get to work for a few minutes, then pair up and talk about their solutions with someone else, and then we work through the problem together on the board. We might not get through as many problems, but it should make the students more involved in class.

Would this be a good way to run a recitation? What are some other ways to run a recitation to encourage student participation?

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    $\begingroup$ Just FYI -- in Australia we call such classes "tutorials". Not sure what they're called in other countries, but here at least "recitation" is a completely unknown term! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ I talked about some ideas in this answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ Just be aware that your ability to do different things depends strongly on the coordinator and/or lecture of the course. In my department, we have almost no such freedom in recitations in order to maintain consistency. $\endgroup$
    – Chris C
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ Just remember, not everybody likes classroom interaction. I personally find the sound of this really annoying in retrospect. Judging from the reaction of my own classes after I prank them by saying "let's put our chairs into a circle so we can discuss", I'd guess there are a lot of people out there who share my feeling about the joy of non-interactive math classes. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ I get what you're saying @JamesS.Cook, but many students, though they say they don't like classroom interaction, find they get a lot less out of teacher-led things than they thought they did. The majority of students tell me they recognise the usefulness of interaction after trying it in a class that did it well. Moreover, they do have classes already where there is no interaction (ie lectures), and it's a bit unreasonable to say you want all the classes to be that way. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 5:58

2 Answers 2


I strongly recommend consulting with the department AND Course Instructors before trying new interactive protocols. In one of my first Teaching Assistant jobs, I tried adding a quotation or factoid at the beginning of the session for the students to look at (and think about) if they wanted. I did some other things too.

My instructor sent out a midterm poll on his performance and the TA's. He called me in and said there very few things that could be concluded from his poll, but one of them was that the students hated me. I don't think it was due to the quotations (there were other possible factors, including some challenging problems), but I admit I did that on my own without consulting anyone; in retrospect, I should have talked to someone before instituting anything different.

In one of my last years as TA, I did something similar for a related class, and got two rewarding experiences: one student said that he preferred the hard (ungraded) practice exams since the actual exams would seem like a relief and since the practice exams would help prepare them (indeed, I anticipated an actual exam problem), and another student pushed back with a question related to one I asked, which led to some research level results in combinatorial matrix theory and in combinatorial algebra.

If you don't have it yet, start building your support network now (instructor, fellow TA's, therapists, administrative personnel) to help you both anticipate and cope with the downs as well as the ups. If this is your first session, don't try anything untested by you, even if all you can do to test is practice in front of a mirror.

Gerhard "Take Your Enthusiasm With You" Paseman, 2015.06.01

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    $\begingroup$ The general point---that a TA should be in communication with the course instructor about the format of recitation---is absolutely correct, but your example is a bit depressing. Something as innocuous as putting a quotation on the board at the start of class seems comfortably within a TA's discretion to me. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ What it suggests is depressing. This is part of the point. I had (and to some extent, still do have) some naive expectations on how my first teaching sessions would go. I wish the original poster the best experiences, but such wishes are ill-preparation for reality. If the poster goes in with the mind set "I'm going to try something anyway, as I have faith in myself and encouragement from my instructor" AFTER reading my post, then I think they are better prepared than if they hadn't read my post. Gerhard "My Mileage Almost Always Varies" Paseman, 2015.06.04 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 18:34

I'm assuming you are going to TA for a general level calculus class (i.e. engineers, science majors, some business people, pre-med...etc.--my guess is that there is a separate business calculus though).

I think you basically have five options in recitations (that last of which is very broad):

  1. You explain homework problems
  2. You explain similar problems to the homework
  3. You have the students explain homework problems
  4. You have the students present solutions (similar to the homework)
  5. You try to instruct the students.

I think in an intro level class such as calculus that 3) or 4) is the best way to run a recitation...and probably 3) would be the most popular among students.

It would be nice to be adaptive. For instance if there is a topic that you realize the students don't understand, then perhaps it would be helpful to give a lesson over that topic rather than simply working problems that day. Often times the students will benefit from hearing the same thing said two different ways.


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