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Discover the power of discussion sections

Students often see discussion sections as a waste of time, going so far as to skip them if the sections barely impact their grade. However, when implemented successfully, discussion sections have proven to be vital in improving overall grades and learning experiences.

One course that many STEM-based freshmen have to take is Chemistry 101. With its grueling exams and vast amounts of necessary study time, CHEM 101 has proven its worth among the ranks of UMBC’s hardest courses.  

As a guideline for student success, UMBC recommends that for every one hour spent in class, three hours should be spent outside of class practicing the material. Nevertheless, most students do not commit this much time studying on their own. This is where discussion sections come in.

Discussion sections are usually mandatory. Yet, students who take the class simply for a grade, as opposed to taking the class to truly learn the material, frequently do not take advantage of this learning opportunity.

In the introductory levels of chemistry, the discussion sections are dubbed ‘Discovery Learning’, as they are held in the University Center’s Chemistry Discovery Center. These are the types of discussion sections that classes should strive to incorporate.

Discovery Learning sections are held once a week for an hour and fifty minutes, allowing students more time to review and understand material presented in class. Students work in groups of four to complete electronic worksheets, and each student is given a role they have to fulfill to make sure one person is not doing all the work. If the group finishes their work early, they are given another worksheet to do until the end of that time block.

Studies and observations made by the faculty behind discovery sessions have shown that since Discovery was introduced in 2005, withdrawal rates, coupled with grades of D’s and F’s, have been cut in half. Grades have also improved, with only 9.9% of students getting an A in 2002 and 26.3% of students achieving an A in 2008. Discovery also improved the average final exam performance in the same semester it was implemented. This led to a higher retention rate of students within chemistry and biochemistry majors.

Discussion sections should be modeled after Discovery’s active learning structure, because it would allow students to understand how to solve problems by working together. The elongated time slot would give more time for students to pinpoint what concepts confuse them.

By focusing on the learning that takes place in a longer discussion section, professors can see gains in performance throughout the course. Dr. William LaCourse, the Dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and Professor of Chemistry, noted that since Discovery Learning was made mandatory and part of the class grade, students have displayed a higher level of understanding in the course.

Though students continue to complain and dislike discussion sections, the data does not lie. Sacrificing a couple hours of time for the sake of a grade is definitely an appropriate trade off.

UMBC is always looking for ways to improve student retention rate and grades. Reforming discussion sections is only the first step in many towards improving education at UMBC.