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Running Workshops

The PDP teaching philosophy is aimed at creating a certain very specific type of classroom atmosphere in the Intensive Sections. It is easy to describe what this atmosphere ISN’T: it isn’t the TA at the board explaining material, working problems, and answering the occasional question. A good atmosphere involves a careful and subtle balance among lecture, individual work, and group work. The measure of whether a good atmosphere has been achieved is the degree to which students are actively participating.

Balancing Lecture, Individual Work, and Group Work

In an effective section atmosphere, these three elements must be present in a good balance. The usual mistake is for there to be too much lecture, but there can also be too much group work. A useful rule of thumb is that the three should take up time in the section in about the ratio 2 (lecture) : 5 (group) : 3 (individual) “Lecture” is defined as the TA at the board talking to (or at least toward) the whole class, possibly writing on the board, and possibly involving student participation from time to time.

“Group work” is defined as students working actively together in a group on a problem by discussing it with each other. To be a “group” there must be at least 2 but probably not more than 5 students involved.

“Individual work” is defined as students at their places working alone on a problem by reading (from the text or the worksheet), writing, or thinking.

There needs to be an explicit discussion, led by the TA, in one of the first section meetings dealing with these issues about what an intensive section “atmosphere” is going to be like.


An important element in the PDP philosophy about teaching is reduction of the amount of section time devoted to lecturing by the TA. There are many reasons for taking this approach, but they can all be summarized in this observation: lecturing stops many useful things from happening that could be happening and should be happening in a class . It stops the students from having active interactions with each other, with the TA, and with themselves about the material. And it stops the TA and the UGA’s from getting to know the students and their strengths and weaknesses better. The major place lecture should occur is after the students have been working on a moderately difficult worksheet problem in class for 10 or 15 minutes. This is a perfect time for the TA to give a short lecture that focuses on the problem, on approaches to its solution, and on the theory behind it.

An important time for the TA to resist the temptation to lecture is when students come in to section saying they don’t understand topic XYZ. This will always happen, and TA’s and students tend to collude here: the students want the thing explained to them, and the TA’s love to explain it. But this subverts habits that in the long run are more effective. What are these habits? First, students should read the text. Since at first this is a strange and foreign act for many students, they have to be taught to read the text (slowly, line by line, and between the lines). Second, they should go to lecture (after reading the text), and should ask questions (or at least appoint a brave colleague to ask questions for them). Third, they should go to office hours (the lecturer’s, the TA’s, and the UGA’s. These are all active and effective ways for students to wrestle with understanding difficult material. They are all better than sitting while the TA takes up valuable section time with a lecture.

The other important time for the TA to resist lecturing is when students want to have homework problems worked out on the board. (The TA working a problem out on the board counts as “lecturing” according to the definition we are using.) It is not that this must never be done. Sometimes, for a difficult and important homework problem that almost everyone had trouble with, it is appropriate for the TA to discuss the problem in section. But hopefully this discussion will be more creative than the scenario of the TA “doing the problem at the board” often implies. Also, there needs to be selectivity here, since, otherwise doing homework problems on demand will fill up the section time.

Group Work

Having students work together in groups is crucial in PDP sections. The fundamental reason for this is that a student will be more actively involved by participating in a group than either by listening to a lecture or by working individually. In group a student can not only hear the ideas and explanations of his/her peers, but also can get practice at formulating his/her own questions and not-yet-fully-formed ideas about the material and getting feedback on them. The group is a safer environment for this than the professor’s or the TA’s office hours. Being in a group also allows students to hear what others are saying about both course issues and general campus issues. The importance of this should not be under emphasized. It reduces the student’s sense of isolation, and can form the basis of lasting academic relationships with peers.

There is much that can be said about particular ways to have students work in groups. Done well, groups are the key to success of the intensive sections. Done poorly, groups can foster chaos and breed frustration. See Notes on Group Work.

Individual Work

Clearly, certain activities must be done by students working individually, not in groups. Taking quizzes is certainly one of them. But there are other times when it is best that students work alone; perhaps one of the most common misuses of the group idea is to assume that sections should be all group work all the time. For example, one important time for students to work individually is when first encountering a new worksheet problem. Reading the statement of a problem and jotting down first thoughts about how to approach it are things that most students will be better off doing by themselves, before launching into a group discussion. Similarly, after a problem has been discussed thoroughly in the group as a whole, students need to go back and write up their solutions, in their own words. This is an especially important step. It is where students get practice in writing up solutions in a way that can be understood by others. They should consider it as practice for the write-ups they will be doing on exam problems.

Projects and Variety

At key times in the semester you may want to give the students a breather. Most notably, after midterms! In the fall students crash around the beginning of November, and in the spring the time after spring break is ripe for student burnout. There is a section in Nuts and Bolts with a number of ideas on different projects and ideas to add variety to section. There are also some examples of longer projects you may wish to assign the students. TAs in the past have made the Math 98 unit credit contingent on the student’s performance on the project, which really gets their attention. These projects should be assigned and discussed near the beginning of in the semester so students don’t get overwhelmed by work later in the semester around their midterms. (PDP TA Reference Handbook, 8-23-96)