Teaching Political Science Section Guide

A Guide for Teaching Assistants

The following sections are intended to provide helpful and interesting information that will hopefully answer some of the more frequently asked questions about teaching political science sections when you need it most--in the middle of the night! Few of the ideas and strategies that follow are my own, most are taken from one or more of the sources listed in the bibliography. To prevent information overload, I have waded through the overwhelming amount of information on teaching and selected what I felt was most important for TAs in political science.

I found "Tools for Teaching" the most valuable individual resource. This is the only source that I cite specifically - but the same type of information is elaborated in nearly every reference material. Remember, the information included herein is only the tip of the iceberg! Please consult the bibliography for more in depth information on any topic.
-Lorelei Moosbrugger (Ph.D. 2001)

Leading Sections: General Guidelines

Set Goals and Plan to Achieve Them

Any grad student can talk about political science for 50 minutes! To be an effective discussion leader is however a very different matter. The most important thing you must do before going to section is to set goals for the segment and plan your time. Make a list of questions, prepare in class activities, and ask yourself two questions before every section:

  • What do you want the students to learn in this section?
  • How do you plan on achieving that goal?

Remember to evaluate yourself after each section...

  • Did you achieve your goals?
  • Did you work your plan?

Don't try to do too much!

When it comes to teaching - Less is more! Have no more than three main points for each section.

Connect the material to the students

Try bringing in newspaper stories related to the course. Make analogies to student life - or other shared experiences. The goal is to place new material is an existing schema. It's easier for students to remember new information in relation to something they already know.

Control your section

You may need to cut-off a student who is dominating the discussion, or redirect a runaway discussion, to meet your goals for the section. Also, feel free to rearrange the physical environment, (chairs, blinds, lighting), to facilitate interaction. Bear in mind that if the students can see one another they are more likely to speak in section.

Get feedback on your teaching...

from students, other grad students, the Head TA, or the Center for Teaching Development (CTD). The CTD will even video tape your section so you can evaluate your non-verbal communication!

Be aware of the resources on campus available to you

Take the time to become familiar with these resources early - so you can take advantage of them often!

The First Day

The first day is one of the most difficult days to lead a discussion section--- no one has read anything so there are no readings to discuss! You may also be a little nervous about being in front of your new sections for the first time. There are several things you can do to make the first day comfortable and productive for you and the students.

Review the syllabus before section and make the students a road map for the entire course

What will the students learn this quarter? What part of the whole are they going to learn each week? This will take some time, but if you know where you are going from the beginning the entire quarter will be so much easier. Be prepared to ask the professor some questions if the syllabus doesn't provide the answers, (they don't always know how the individual parts of a course fit together either!). Put that map on the board and discuss what the course material will cover and what kind of questions they will explore. Try to leave them with an interesting question that they will not be able to answer until the end of the course. For example, "What can we predict about the stability of Russian democracy from our understanding about Germany before and after Hitler?"

Begin to get to know your students

Pass out 3x5 cards and collect their basic information. Get their e-mail addresses so you can send out discussion questions to your sections as a whole. Go around the room asking why they took the course, what they hope to get out of it, or similar questions to get each to speak the first section. Sections are designed to give students a more intimate setting in which to ask questions and explore the material but you have to make them comfortable to do so. Start by getting everyone to say something--- Brainstorming is a good first day activity. Remember, you provide the only opportunity they have for one on one contact.

Let them know what will be required of them during the quarter

Review the requirements of the syllabus and be explicit about what you'll expect from them in section. Will there be quizzes? Do they have to attend sections to get credit? Etc. Some TAs require all of their students to come to office hours at least once before the midterm. This may make you more comfortable with each student individually, and it will probably make them more comfortable with you as well. If nothing else, it will help you remember their names!

Develop one to three interesting questions that will direct their reading of the first assignment

This of course requires that YOU do the readings for the second section before the first section! You will always need to be one week ahead of your students if you are going to be able to help them read effectively. Effective reading requires active reading, as opposed to passive reading. In active reading the student is looking for an answer within the text. In passive reading the student is waiting for the text to jump out at them with a sign saying "THIS is important!". You may also require them to bring in questions to the section - this will force them to think about what they do not know, prepare them to anticipate questions on exams, and practice getting information from you!

Asking Questions

Bloom (1956) developed a taxonomy of six types of questions you can ask, each demands something different of the student. In order of difficulty, they include those designed to test memory, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Start with the easy ones, demand more of your students as the quarter progresses. Ask questions that will elicit the information or concepts you want them to learn. Bear in mind that students are more likely to retain information if they articulate it - rather than hearing you articulate it. This is the difference between active and passive learning. Active works better!

The first week you might ask questions that test their memory or knowledge by eliciting responses that include facts in the reading that are important. Use, for example, questions that begin with "list, describe, or state".

The second week you may want to ask questions that require them to focus on the arguments they will need to be able to summarize. Questions that will require the student to illustrate comprehension often begin with "explain, summarize, or describe".

When you feel that the students can generally isolate the important facts and succinctly summarize an author's argument, you can move on to the application of concepts to different contexts. Key words include "illustrate, expand, and extend".


...requires that students break a question or problem into component parts, review or solve each part, and look at the relationship among the parts. Key words include "diagram, differentiate, compare and contrast, analyze"


...requires that students combine two or more elements into a new combination or set of relationships. Key words include "predict" and "integrate".


...requires that students make judgements about how closely something matches some standard or criteria such as logical consistency or explanation. Criticize, defend or evaluate are the key words in this category--- and those most likely to appear on their exams! This is really where you want to go-- at least eventually. One of your most important goals must be to use this type of question to help them prepare for the midterm and final exams. This is the stuff of political science.

Don't be afraid of silence

After you have asked a question give students time to answer it - if they appear stumped try rephrasing the question.

Your job is, in part, to teach students how to ask questions--- and they will learn by following your lead. If they can ask the right questions they're half-way to becoming political scientists, and most of the way toward critical thinking!

Controlling Your Section

You have a job to do, a certain amount of material that needs to be covered, a certain level of understanding that you need to achieve. While the students must be able to discuss the material and ask questions - you need to stick to your outline if you are going to give them the information they need. Do not allow a talkative student to dominate or redirect the discussion toward his or her own interests. The New Professor's Handbooklists many strategies for dealing with problem behaviors. The following is just an excerpt from a larger list of specific problem behaviors and corresponding strategies to deal with each tactfully. See the original for additional information in this vein.

The Monopolizer...

...dominates discussions and takes up too much section time. You may have to interrupt to allow others to speak. Try saying something like.. "You have made some interesting comments, does someone else have something to contribute on this topic?" If you have the opportunity to preclude someone's involvement before you throw the question out to the class, you may say .. "We have been primarily hearing from one or two people today, I'm interested in hearing from others on this question".

The Distractor...

...asks questions or makes comments that have nothing to do with the material currently being discussed. Nip it in the bud! Be direct, say something like.. "that question is interesting but not directly related to the material we are discussing, perhaps we can discuss it further after class." Or perhaps, "Your comment is interesting but off the point. I wish we had the time to discuss that here but unfortunately we have a great deal of material to discuss today".

The Questioner...

...asks question after question. Try turning it around and ask the questioner what he or she thinks you meant. Or you may simply say that the question will be answered later in the class or course.

The Apologizer...

...always prefaces a comment or question with an apology; "..maybe I should know this but..", or "this is probably a stupid question..", etc. You'll need to encourage this person to stop apologizing--- if not for their sake for yours! Respond to their doubt by saying something like.. "That is a very interesting point--- exactly the kind of question that you need to ask." Or emphasize that if one person has a question others are probably confused as well.

If you have more serious problems with a student speak with the head TA, the graduate advisor, or someone at CTD.

Facilitating Active Participation

  • Make eye contact with your students. Smile at them when they speak.
  • Take opinion polls by a show of hands at the beginning and conclusion of a new topic.
  • Ask those individuals who are reluctant to speak questions that you know they can answer to build their conf
  • Pose multiple choice questions to the class as a group and then poll the class as to how many said A, B or C. Ask those for whom participation is a problem for an explanation of their choice.
  • Randomly ask students for the answers to questions you posed to direct their reading at the end of the last section.
  • Randomly ask students what question they might ask if they were the professor to elicit the material assigned for the day.
  • Try using " one minute papers", (on the reading, the professors lecture, your previous section, or possible exam questions), to get the students to write something on paper. This is a good intermediate step toward speaking. You can then ask individual students "What did you write?".
  • The point is to actively engage the students in the material. If they have to do something, like raise their hands, or write down their thoughts, or choose an answer from multiple choices, you are more likely to maintain their attention and they are more likely to think about the material.

In Class Activities


Brainstorming encourages students to consider a range of possible answers. This is a good technique when you are beginning a topic. You can do this as a class or in small groups. You may even want to go around the room and ask each student for a possible explanation of X. The key is to limit the amount of time that you will allow for this activity up front--- ask for as many possible ideas within this period of time.

Divide students into pairs or small groups

Give them a problem to solve or a game to play. This will encourage discussion and allow students to ask questions and explore alternatives in a smaller setting. Some students are reluctant to speak in front of a larger group--- this is a method to "loosen them up".

Show videos or slides

This is especially helpful when studying a case with which students may be completely unfamiliar, like Nigeria for example. If students have a mental picture of a country they will be better able to make abstract concepts concrete. In other words, videos help students make connections between the course material and the real world. See the list of resources on campus on the Leading Sections page.

Play Jeopardy!

Provide questions and answers on 3x5 cards. You can do this as a class with three or four teams, or you can break them up into smaller groups. This is an excellent exercise for the last class before an exam. Making up the questions and answers, (or should I say answers and questions?), is also a good exercise for you!


Quizzes will allow you to test their understanding of the material before exams. You can ask direct questions, ask them to list variables, or ask them to summarize an argument. You might even try a quick quiz at the end of a section to see how well they have synthesized the material from that day! This is also a good way to allocate points for section.


You may find it necessary to lecture if the readings are particularly difficult or if you want to introduce an organizational schema for new information. The first rule is to be organized; make an outline and follow it through. The second rule is the same for any presentation: tell them what you are going to say, say it, and tell them what you said. You may want to put your outline on the board so the students can follow along as well. If at all possible, use a diagram to illustrate what you say. Some students learn well from outlined text, but others learn more easily through pictorial relationships. You will need to use both if you want to connect with all of your students.

Keep in mind that people learn differently.
Try to present the same information in as many ways as possible!


Let the students know...

...what you will expect and the criteria you will use to grade.

Discuss the elements and organization of a good essay before they write!

Let them know if you will be looking for a thesis statement and an argument. If possible use examples from the material. The classes you will TA for are introductory level classes--- students, especially laboratory scientists, will not necessarily know how to organize and essay. Tell your students that you expect to be able to read their writing--- and that a correct answer that you cannot read is worth nothing!

Read several exams before you start assigning grades

You will need to get a feel for the exams. When you are done with the class re-read a few of the exams you graded first - (to make sure your standards didn't change along the way).

Be objective as possible

Decide in advance what matters for a good answer and attempt to make some rules you can follow: X number of points for getting point A, X number of points for citing a source from the reading, etc. If it is possible for them to take several positions make sure that you are not giving preference to opinions with which you agree.

Limit your comments

If you write too much on their exam they won't get as much from it as if you made only one comment. Remember, less is more here as well. Give them comments on something which they can actually improve. If at the end of the paper or exam you find you have too many comments you may want to indicate in what area you believe they should concentrate their efforts.


To correct or not to correct, that is the question. Don't let it bog you down, this is not your primary task. I generally find one type of error that I will correct and leave the rest. For example, if a student has a problem with noun-verb agreement I will generally make small corrections throughout the work so he or she learns to recognize the problem.

Sandwich your final comments

Good-- Bad-- Good. Find something good to say, even if you have to resort to something like.. "I would have never considered this interpretation," then criticize constructively, and finish with something positive. Students care what you say more than you might think, they can either feel your comments are helpful or they can resent your remarks. If they believe that you believe they can improve they will give it a shot. If they get the impression you think they're stupid they have no reason to try to improve. . Positive feedback is as, if not more, important than negative feedback.

Write legibly!

If they cannot read what you have written they gain nothing. Most students are not going to seek you out to have you decipher your comments! If many exams would generate the same comments you may want to type a general comment sheet and include it with the returned exams.

Always say something nice. Make it a rule.

Bibliography & Campus Resources


Davis, Barbara Gross Tools for Teaching Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, San Francisco 1993

McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips D.C. Heath and company Massachusetts 1994

Nilson, Linda B. Teaching At Its Best Anker Publishing Comapany, Inc. Massachusetts1998

The department binder on teaching put together by former head TAs, which includes a variety of different articles from numerous sources.

Campus Resources

The Center for Teaching Development offers a variety of resources to enhance your teaching generally, and is well equipped to offer advice for specific tasks as well.

Don't forget that the Media Center in the Communications Building offers videos that you can take out and show during a section.

The Central Library also has videos, slides and audio tapes available. Audio and visual aids can engage students in a way that lecture or discussion cannot.

Use e-mail and your web page to communicate with students.