Solving the problems of sections

By their junior or senior year, most students form the same assessment of a career’s worth of discussion sections: a few were really good, a few were painfully bad, and most of them were pretty worthless. Considering that many Yale students spend almost one-third of their classroom time in section, the poor quality of these weekly meetings is perhaps the biggest and most important problem the academic review committee can take on this year.

There are actually a few problems with sections, but the good news is that most of them are solvable. Most disappointing sections result from a combination of factors: students who aren’t interested in the class or skip the reading, students who are not comfortable speaking in small groups, teaching assistants who lead class poorly or are unqualified to teach on the subject, and lecture courses with material not well-suited to group discussion.

This last defect might be the easiest to fix. While sections have become a default for many lecture courses today, this only been the case in very recent years. The academic review committee should urge professors to think more critically about whether their lectures should really be accompanied by sections. Some classes — broad survey courses in particular –would be much more valuable if professors chose to lecture three times a week and cut the section.

In courses that fit well with discussion, the committee should encourage professors to offer sections only optionally. For example, students who take the section might receive 20 percent of their course grade from discussion and the rest from papers and tests, while students who elect not to take the section would receive their entire grade based on papers and tests.

This system would solve several problems at once. First, sections would be dramatically improved by a full complement of students especially interested in the course material and committed to discussion. Second, students who do not like speaking in small groups or are not taking the class seriously would not have to waste their time in section. And finally, making most sections optional would decrease the number of TAs thrown into courses in which they have little expertise.

In many ways, the question is not whether the committee can solve the problem of sections, but whether it will try. The underlying issue is that both these plans — cutting sections for some classes and making them optional for most others — would considerably decrease the demand for graduate student teachers. Given the tense relationship between some graduate student groups and the University, it might be tempting for the committee to bypass the issue of sections for political reasons.

We think such a decision would be highly disappointing and contradictory to the charge Yale President Richard Levin gave the committee six months ago. Reforming sections might be the single best way to immediately improve the undergraduate curriculum — we hope the committee doesn’t let that opportunity pass.