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Socratic Method

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Despite being considered by many teachers to be the most effective method of leading a discussion, the Socratic method is not a catch-22 solution to discussions [1]

In order to be used effectively, the instructor must first learn how to use it effectively through follow-up questions, and cut through the misconceptions surrounding this ever-popular method.

What is it?

The Socratic method does NOT:

The Socratic method DOES:

The Socratic method is a dialogue between teacher and student (notice the use of the singular) that encourages self-examination of values and cultural logic systems, and through these will ideally challenge the foundations of everything a student believes in.  It rarely involves outward modeling or factual assertions, though it can be used to evaluate personal arguments.


In what situations is the Socratic method useful?

The Socratic method is great for encouraging students to be introspective, can be used to demonstrate the uncertainty of many ideas.  It is not useful where structured outcomes are desired.  As such, for example, the Socratic method works great to get students to learn to listen and understand their own ideas, but another method should probably be used to get the students to articulate those thoughts in a unified piece of writing.

Anytime you want students to examine their own thoughts and assumptions, dropping into Socratic techniques for the interim often proves useful, before returning to articulation with another method.


How might I use the Socratic method in class?

Before anything else, the teacher must be willing to set up an “atmosphere of discomfort” for fielded questions and responses.  This is not presenting questions in an intimidating way to try to get students to come to class prepared so they won’t get humiliated by not being able to answer tough questions.  Rather, this is an academic feeling of discomfort aroused by calling an individual’s (student or teacher) personal ideas into question, and forcing that individual to come to terms with it.  The Socratic method is calling into question the base assumptions an individual uses to make decisions.  This is discomforting, and we naturally do not always want to answer.  Yet, the teacher must foster an atmosphere that brings students towards answering.

With this in mind, the below tips and follow-up question techniques will help make the Socratic method successful.


The Top Ten Tips for Using the Socratic Method
(All taken from Dr. Rob Reich’s “The Socratic Method and How to Use it in the Classroom”

  1. “First see that the problem is difficult to answer” to quote Bertrand Russell.  Present your topic as a question that doesn’t have an easy answer.
  2. From the first day of class set down conversation guidelines.
    • Learn and utilize everyone’s name in class.  Require students to address each other by name as well.
    • Don’t shy away from ad hominem dialogues.  The individual is at the heart of the Socratic dialogue.
    • Establish that class participation involves much more than listening and proving one response per day.  Class participation requires listening to others thoughts first, then continuously participating in the developing dialogue.
    • Establish that the focus will be on examining principles and logical systems, not on 1st person narratives of personal experiences (Without examination).  Saying “because this was my experience” is not enough.
  3. Foster “productive discomfort” with serious, introspective questions, rather than questions that desire factual answers or articulating a complex argument.  The emphasis should be on exploration, not presentation.
    • Ask questions, but more importantly, be comfortable with the silence that will follow.
    • Wait out the “discomforting” silences.  Eventually, a student will answer.
    • A nice rule of thumb is getting in the habit of waiting at least 10 seconds after each question before attempting a follow-up in any fashion.
  4. Be willing to follow-up student responses.
  5. Be open to learning something new.
    • Be willing to pursue a “teaching moment” when it appears
    • Be honest when you don’t know, or when you agree with a student’s ideas.
  6. Encourage good, serious ideas, even slightly crazy ones, that contribute to the self-examination dialogue, discourage student responses that are not serious additions to the discussion. 
    • Serious examples provoke examination, unserious ideas are often presented more for their emotional impact.
    • Weight the grade towards participation, giving as much as 1/3 of the grade on class participation.
  7. Emphasize that brevity and short interventions are much more welcome than short lectures.
  8. Avoid and break down obsequious deference based entirely on your instructor status.  Respect coming from your position as a knowledgeable person is fine, but not respect that comes from your simply holding the position of instructor.
  9. Find a good classroom space that encourages a discussion where all participants can see each other.
  10. Do not be scared off the Socratic method because of a large class.  It works with very large classes as well.

Follow-up Questions

In order to best facilitate dialogue in the classroom it is often necessary to “follow-up” student responses, to further develop students’ understanding of the present issue.  After a student responds to a prompt use one of these follow-up questions. 

  1. Ask for clarification
  2. Ask for a student to substantiate the response (often with textual evidence).
  3. Ask other students to evaluate the response (opinion).
  4. Check for consistency (Then how would you treat situation Y, if you do that for X?).
  5. Ask how the response is related to a previous issue or comment.
  6. Ask student to extrapolate/draw out the implications from their response.
  7. Resolve an aspect of the issue and move onto a new part.


[1]. It should also be noted that the Socratic method is based on Socrates techniques, the method does not imitate them.  The Socratic method encourages individuals to understand and develop their own ideas, not to destroy and ignore opposing viewpoints.

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