The Value of UC Berkeley Discussion Sections

Two graduate student instructors share insights into why discussion sections set UC Berkeley apart

At UC Berkeley, you have a great opportunity to dive more deeply into your studies with discussion sections. Collaborate with your fellow classmates. Build a community of learning. Discuss, ask questions and apply course content. Work through questions and problems with your Graduate Student Instructor (GSI).

When you engage with your fellow classmates and GSI, you’ll remember the material better and learn how to apply and extend your knowledge.

Two GSIs give you an inside look into the value of discussion sections.

Melissa McCall considers herself a nontraditional college student: She took classes part-time at Portland State University, graduating summa cum laude in 2013 with a major in Political Science and a minor in Legal Studies. She is now working toward her J.D. and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley Law School’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, where she studies psychological biases in legal decision making. Melissa is also an affiliated researcher in the school’s Culture, Diversity and Intergroup Relations Lab.

Aniket Kesari received his B.A. in Political Science and History from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley Law School’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program. He will also receive a J.D. from Yale University. His research interests focus on technology law, with a specific focus on privacy and cybersecurity.

 

 

Photo of Aniket Kesari

Aniket's Top 5 Things to Do in the San Francisco Bay Area

 

  1. Hike the Big C.
  2. Go to the top of the Campanile.
  3. Eat at the Cheese Board.
  4. See a show at the Greek Theatre.
  5. Check out First Fridays in Oakland.

 

 

What is your teaching style for the discussion sections?

Melissa: I tend to shift my teaching style based on the professor’s teaching style, the course material and students’ needs. But I try to make the section laid-back and comfortable. Sometimes I use the section discussion to work on writing or research skills; other times, if a text is particularly challenging, I use the section discussion to walk students through the text with a close reading.

More typically, I use it for structured discussion, which begins with defined questions in small groups so that students who are shy and don’t like to speak in class can exchange ideas with their peers. Once students have worked through their ideas in small groups, we come together as a class and each small group shares what they talked about. This strategy reduces the chances that some students will dominate the discussion and others will never participate at all.

Aniket: I challenge my students to explore questions that are raised in our lectures and readings. I generally start each discussion by providing a few questions to get the ball rolling, and then have the class explore course themes in more depth. If I am teaching a class that involves assignments like problem sets, I’ll frequently have students work together in groups.

What are your expectations for students in the discussion sections?

Melissa: Students treat one another with respect. In Legal Studies, we discuss important and polarizing political, social and economic issues. Everyone comes to the room with different opinions and perspectives, but it’s important to remember that an issue that is hypothetical for some students might be part of other students’ lived experiences.

Aniket: I expect students to be prepared to discuss the big picture from that week’s lectures and readings. I encourage all of my students to participate and practice conveying their ideas to their peers.

What types of topics do you discuss in these sections?

Melissa: My sections tend to focus on the political science of law, with an emphasis on the U.S. Supreme Court. Sometimes we talk about the cases themselves, but the primary focus is on discussing those cases in their social and political contexts. For example, we are less interested in what the court wrote in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and more interested in Brown as a social and political moment. Why did the court rule that way, at that time? Was the ruling effective?

Aniket: I usually pick an interesting aspect of the course and delve into a more specific discussion of it. I also bring in my own work and research into the class. For example, in a course that covers topics in law and data science, I bring in my own insights about how machine learning, artificial intelligence and quantitative methods can be used to answer policy questions in an ethical manner.

 

 

Photo of Melissa McCall

Melissa's Top 5 Things to Do in the San Francisco Bay Area

 

  1. Visit the Berkeley Botanical Garden.
  2. Go up the hill to the big “C” and stop along the way with a friend to take each other’s pictures on the swing!
  3. Visit the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
  4. Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile.
  5. See the T-Rex in the Valley Life Sciences Building!

 

 

What advice do you give students on how best to succeed in a discussion section?

Melissa: You are there and you engage in a respectful exchange of ideas. Do all of the course readings ahead of time. As you read, take notes. Write down an author’s main points. Think about them critically. Have you read anything else for the same course (or elsewhere) that offers a different perspective? Which do you find more persuasive? Why?

The more you think about what you read for class, the more you will have to share in discussion section. Listen thoughtfully to your classmates, engage with their ideas and give them the chance to engage with yours.

Aniket: Don’t be afraid to participate and ask questions! Come to office hours and talk to your GSI about who you are, what you’re interested in and your future plans. We’re always happy to help students however we can.

What makes these discussion sections attractive for students?

Melissa: Berkeley is a big university, and even a relatively small lecture has 50 students in the class. The professor does most of the talking. Section is a great place for students to not only express their own ideas about the material, but also to find community on campus.

Aniket: Because Berkeley classes can be so big, discussion sections are a nice way to get a more personalized experience. Discussion sections are students’ opportunity to raise questions, explore ideas and engage with the material in an interactive way.