Introducing the Discussion Section

By Zane Harding October 30, 2019

Did you know some classes, such as intro-level musicology courses, have discussion sections on the eighth floor of the Burton Memorial Tower (pictured above)?

Has this ever happened to you? You’re applying to colleges and you hear this anecdote when you mention that you are applying to the University of Michigan: “Oh, that’s a very big school. Your classes are going to be way too big. You’ll never be able to get individualized help in those courses.”

As a senior here at U-M, I’m here to tell you how wrong most of that statement is.

Let’s start by acknowledging the truth: the University of Michigan is a large school, and you are going to have some large classes. EECS 280, a 200-level programming course, for example, will hold 310 students in two lectures and 156 students in three more lectures in Winter 2020. That is indeed a large course.

However, there are two problems with the above statement. One: not every class is going to be as large as EECS 280 or CHEM 125, the intro-level chemistry course at the university. And two: when your class is this large, you’re going to have a discussion section.

What is a discussion section?

Let’s say you’re taking ECON 101, “Intro to Microeconomics.” ECON 101 is a very popular course at the university. In your 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. lecture on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you estimate around 400 people show up to the class (in Winter 2020, each lecture will fit in 371 students). You may worry to yourself that even if you attend office hours, you’re not going to get the individual help you need.

While I still highly recommend office hours and can attest that you can get targeted help even in the university’s largest courses, there’s another place to find help: discussion section. For example, in ECON 101, you will have a discussion section that meets once per week for one hour taught by a graduate student instructor (commonly referred to as a GSI) who will review the concepts you learned in class the previous week. Discussion sections are a great place to sharpen your knowledge and to ask individual questions. Plus, to further incentivize your attendance, some discussion sections have an attendance grade or require you to turn in weekly homework at the beginning of class.

While discussion sections will differ in format and requirements, the point of a discussion section is to shrink that large classroom down to a smaller classroom setting with anywhere from 18 to 35 students. Discussion sections also give you a second instructor (the GSI) to lean on throughout a course in addition to your primary professor.

One last thing: don’t take your discussion sections for granted when you first arrive to Michigan. Come prepared with questions that arise in the larger lectures or while you are studying. While some people may benefit more from discussion sections than others because learning styles differ (for example, I am very much an independent learner), try things out and see how you like your discussion section. The University of Michigan is a big school, but that doesn’t mean you’re never going to work in a small classroom setting again.


Zane Harding
Zane Harding

Zane is a graduating senior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts with a major in English. He first became passionate about writing when he helped found the Michigan Society for American Baseball Research (better known as M-SABR) and joined SB Nation's Bless You Boys contributing articles on the Detroit Tigers. Zane has spent the past month living vicariously through his Animal Crossing villager and looking at U-M job listings to pass the time during social distancing.