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Ao: Northwestern should adopt more online discussion sections

Bethany Ao, Columnist

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When I walked to one of my discussion sections this week with one of my friends, we rehearsed what we were going to say to “contribute” to the class to get a satisfactory participation grade.

“OK, OK, you ask about this topic,” she said, “and then I can mention this part in our reading, and you can bounce off that with your next point.”

“Yeah, sounds good,” I agreed.

But in my head, I began thinking about how ridiculous it was that we had to plan out what we were going to say in front of our teaching assistant so meticulously. Is a discussion section even constructive when students feel like they have to plan out what they want to say in advance before even stepping foot into the classroom?

Northwestern students are some of the most intelligent and articulate people I’ve ever met. More than once, I’ve found myself nodding along to a point someone made in one of my discussion sections. The variety of opinions and viewpoints the students here bring to a classroom lends color and dimension to the course material that we study. However, when a discussion section gets narrowed down to nothing but an opportunity to collect mandatory participation points, the classroom environment becomes incredibly uncomfortable with all the intellectual jockeying that goes on.

As an introvert, there were times when I found it hard to speak up in a discussion because I felt like my TA or classmates were judging me when talking was rendered mandatory. There were also times that I would blurt out something that contributed nothing to the ongoing discussion simply to get my participation points. Both of those things prevent a discussion section from reaching its full potential.

One of my professors last year came up with a good solution to avoid these things from happening – online discussion sections. Instead of grading us on what we said in class, she chose to let us post our thoughts on readings online. Every Sunday, I would log onto Blackboard and read all my classmates’ thoughts about the course material before writing my own. Oftentimes, I would refer to another classmate’s thoughts in my post.

Everyone had a chance to express opinions through online sections instead of feeling pressured to speak up during the course of one discussion section. It was also easier for us to have constructive talks in class because we could cite our classmates’ points easily from what they’ve written. And without the pressure of having to earn participation points in lecture, I felt more comfortable sharing my thoughts as they were, without considering what my professor may want to hear.

However, online sections are not perfect either. Sometimes my classmates were not interested in expressing their opinions in person because they had already done so online, and that took away from the discussion. Other times, I would take offense in something someone had written because I interpreted their opinion with a certain tone, only to find out later that they hadn’t meant their point in the way I read it.

More professors at NU should consider holding discussion sections online, as it allows for introverted students to find a space to express their sincere thoughts on course material. Online discussion forums supplement section by providing stepping stones to build more concrete insights. These forums also give people a chance to really focus on what their classmates say instead of being preoccupied with how they’re going to phrase their own thoughts when called on to speak.

It’s time to cut the pressure that comes with feeling like you have to speak up about something, just for the sake of saying something in class, by reformatting traditional discussion sections.

Bethany Ao is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at bethanyao2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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