Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching STEM Quiz Sections: First Day and Beyond

During “quiz” sections, TAs are typically responsible for helping students understand and apply concepts learned in large lecture classes. This workshop includes setting frameworks and expectations for the section on the first day of class, an overview of TA roles in quantitative problem-solving quiz sections, aligning section content with lecture, and strategies for fostering active student learning.


  • Teaching labs (as opposed to quiz sections) in STEM fields is addressed in the “Teaching in Lab Settings: First Day and Beyond” workshop.
  • Text from all linked material in google docs is also available at the bottom of this page–scroll down to access.

Workshop goals & corresponding materials

1. Identify typical structures and goals of STEM quiz sections.

See the following.

2. Discuss methods for aligning section content with lecture.

  • Key strategies:
    1. Be aware of what’s happening in lecture–attend when you can, and/or get course plans from the professor.
    2. Communicate with other TAs in your course.
    3. Communicate with your professor.

3. Identify and plan strategies for fostering active student learning.

See the following:

4. Discuss opportunities for inclusive teaching in a STEM quiz section.

See all of the following:

Then, consider:
Inclusive teaching doesn’t occur automatically. It requires planning and promoting across a spectrum of teaching practices (from course design to assessment) with the aim of creating a learning environment that allows all students to engage, regardless of discipline and course content. How will you create an inclusive & equitable learning environment for the students in your section?

5. Set frameworks and expectations for students on the first day of class.

See Teaching the First Day of Class.

Then, consider the following:

  • What is one thing you will tell your students about yourself?
  • What is one thing you will tell students about the class?
  • What is one thing you will ask students to do on the first day?


Additional materials (from google docs linked above):

Examples of Goals for STEM Quiz Sections

  • Review difficult concepts from the lecture and reading
  • Discuss examples and cases that illustrate theory presented in the lecture
  • Practice problem-solving, model problem-solving
  • Provide opportunities for interactive learning and group work
  • Allow time for student questions and answers on lecture or homework
    • Review for exams
    • Take quizzes
    • Introduce material the professor didn’t have time to go over in lecture

What Students Appreciate in STEM Quiz Sections
(based on student feedback)

Typically, students appreciate quiz sections which provide:

  • Clear links to the lecture
  • The opportunity to ask and answer questions in a receptive atmosphere
  • Frameworks which help cognitively organize the material for them
    • outlines on the board at the beginning of class: key points covered in the lecture and/or of key concepts to be covered in the quiz section.
    • clear connections (visually represented on the board/overhead and emphasized orally) between theory and applications/examples.
    • hints and help in prioritizing, ordering and classifying material
  • A balance of reviewing key concepts from the lecture and practical application – usually, though not always, with the weight on practical application
  • Explanations of or approaches to material that are different from those provided by the lecture or the book, when those explanations or approaches clarify the material and are clearly linked to the lecture
  • Practice solving sample problems
    • clear step by step explanations, procedures shown on the board
    • questions posed at key points in the solution
    • overviews and summaries of problem-solving approaches
    • opportunities to ask questions about problems and solutions
    • explicit links to similar problems
    • opportunities to interact with each other and with the instructor while working towards solving problems
  • Handouts
    • review sheets
    • summaries of key points and concepts, formulae, terms
    • outlines to fill in during class
    • practice problems and solutions
  • Review for tests
    • sample exams, old exams
    • extra review sections and/or extra office hours before tests
    • handouts for review
    • a regular section devoted to review before each test


Active Learning in Problem-Solving

A large part of STEM quiz sections is often devoted to solving sample problems.  As a TA, how can you ensure that students are not just passively watching you zip through a problem, but are learning skills that will help them go on to solve new problems on their own?  Research shows the importance of interaction and “active learning” (students “doing things and thinking about what they are doing”, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, Bonwell and Eison, 1991:2).

How to build in interaction between:

  • Instructor and students
    • Elicit ideas and information from your students
    • Allow plenty of time for them to ask questions
    • Circulate among them when they’re working in groups or on their own, to make yourself available for questions and to encourage full participation
  • Instructor and material
    • “Think aloud” when demonstrating how to solve a problem; model your reasoning strategy for the students
    • Try to remember being a beginner in your discipline, so that you can make your steps explicit for your students.  (Otherwise, you may be overlooking some steps because you now do them automatically.)
  • Students and material
    • Give students class time to work on problems, so they can consult with each other and you
    •  As you demonstrate a problem, ask students questions that structure the task (what are we given, what do we need to find out, how could we go about that, how could we break this into parts, does this remind you of a similar problem, what’s different about this one, what else could we try, does this answer seem reasonable, what other kind of problems could we use this procedure for, …)
    • Sometimes it may be helpful to have students write out in words what they’ve learned, what they’re confused about, or what steps they’d take to work on a problem
  • Students and students
    • Have students work on some problems in pairs or groups.
    • When a student asks a question, see if another student has an idea of how to answer it
    • You may want to make different groups responsible for presenting solutions to different problems to the class as a whole.  Prepare students first on how to present the information effectively.


Integrating “Belonging” into STEM Instruction

Adapted from: J. S. Matthews “On Mindset and Practices for Re-Integrating ‘Belonging’ into Mathematics Instruction”, Teaching Works, University of Michigan, 2018.

Among our undergraduates, we have a significant number of underrepresented groups, including economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. The information here will help you avoid unintentionally marginalizing students who are already marginalized by society at large so you can make sure all of your students feel included and supported in your class.

Critical Awareness

You may not think that the content of your field has anything to do with social justice, and that issues of student identity are extraneous or distractions. However, science and engineering are ultimately human endeavors, and until relatively recently the path into a science or engineering career was foreclosed to most humans who did not belong to the dominant group (white, wealthy, men).

Students are coming in to your class with all sorts of extra-curricular stuff on their mind, especially if they are a member of a marginalized group (People of Color, LGBTQ, female). Be aware this is the reality for all of your students, and yourself!

The first step toward treating your students equitably is developing critical awareness. Critical awareness is deep knowledge of structural and systemic biases that negatively impact Black, Brown, and socially-disadvantaged children, and how those biases find their way into the classroom through the teacher beliefs and practices. Research has revealed that high teacher expectations alone (i.e. wanting and believing your students can be academically successful) is not enough to predict whether a teacher will teach in culturally responsive ways. Rather, high expectations coupled with critical awareness predict whether teachers are likely to integrate their students’ culture and interests into instruction and are also predictive of achievement outcomes for those students.

Although you may only see your students for one quiz section per week, and very likely are not in a position to determine the content or structure of your course, there are still things you can do to help all of your students feel like they belong, and in ways that actually support science-learning directly! The ideas here can be woven into how you conduct yourself with your students and how you foster interactions between students in ways that are equitable and directed at promoting their learning and their identity as scientists.

Instructor Mindset

Seeing Students Through Empathy

History and data have shown that those students who rank high on that learner scale (i.e., achievers) get to be recipients of the teacher’s best version of themselves, while lower-ranking students usually receive some lower form of teacher care, effort, and patience.

Seeing students means looking beyond the students’ characteristics that afford them success in a classroom and seeing them for the multiple and diverse facets (e.g., emotions, strengths, frustrations, aspirations) that are encapsulated within the complex individual.

Teachers with an empathetic, caring mindset consistently (a) demonstrated emotional consciousness to understand and manage student frustration, (b) reinforced students’ identity while engaging them in the academic content, and (c) showed a willingness to partner with student struggles inside the classroom and outside.

You are not just there to give a grade. Look beyond their apparent motivation to learn the material and find a way to engage with each of your students’ humanity.

Allies versus Saviors (or Role Models)

Many math teachers can come to see their mathematical success as the standard for what is good/correct and thus try to get students to become like them, at least mathematically if not in other ways as well. Many were able to “practice themselves into perfection” and become self-motivated to overcome the odds of their environment; thus, they believe their students should follow their example. This savior mentality (wanting students to become like oneself rather than supporting them to become the best versions of themselves) is rooted in deficit thinking at its core and feeds into the culture of “correctness” that is so pervasive in mathematics instruction, creating obstacles to students’ sense of belonging if they do not measure up to the standards of the teacher.

Challenge the Idol of “Correctness”

  • Science does not proceed in a linear fashion, although it is often presented that way.
  • It is important to remind yourself and your students that everything we know about the universe was, at one point, unknown.
  • Everything we know was discovered by a fellow human. Your students just haven’t discovered the content of the course yet.
  • Struggle is the discovery process.
  • Science is not a list of facts, it is a method of inquiry that can lead to rich understanding of physical existence.
  • As such, the “correct answer” is in some ways the least interesting part of solving a problem. The path taken from the statement of a problem to the final result is the interesting part. And there are often multiple equally valid pathways.
  • Every class will have its own unique flow, so there is no standard script for challenging “correctness” as the ultimate ideal. But there are some implicit and explicit ways that you can adjust your presentation of material and your interactions with students to bring their focus back to the process of inquiry.
    • Watch your language:
      • Do not ask for agreement or disagreement from the rest of the class when you or (especially) a student is presenting their solution to a problem. Shift the focus away from critical judgements of correctness to a neutral assessment of the reasoning presented. Students should ask questions about aspects of the approach that they don’t understand.
      • Do not clarify a question that a student misinterpreted in such a way that thinking is devalued.
    • Present a solution path to a question that is incorrect. Tell the students that it is incorrect, ask them to figure out why. This will:
      • Reduce instructor and student focus on “correctness” by elevating the reasoning process over the ultimate result
      • Disarm and normalize “wrongness” so that it doesn’t sting so much
      • Help students realize that mistakes and errors are part of the discovery process
      • Give students practice critiquing errors, so that they can get better at recognizing them in their own work
    • If you have developed a good rapport with students, you might ask them to provide their own wrong solutions to a problem, and ask the class members to pick their favorite. For their favorite wrong answer, ask the students to identify where the solution path things started to go awry, and to explain why it’s their favorite.