Sunday, September 15, 2013

Turning the Socratic Method into a More Positive Experience

The Socratic Method is probably the most feared and most maligned aspect of law school.  Fortunately, most professors sincerely use the Socratic Method to improve learning.  Unfortunately, a very few professors purposely misuse Socratic Method to humiliate or terrorize students and to make themselves feel superior.

A professor can make the questioning more effective as a learning tool by keeping the following points  in mind:

  • Students have different reactions to Socratic Method dependent on their learning styles.  Students who are talking learners or active thinkers may feel less intimidated because they learn by discussion and asking questions.  Students who are listening learners or reflective thinkers may be more nervous because they prefer to not speak in class and think about material without interaction with others.  Also the students who process with the opposite styles from the professor will at times get flustered because they may not understand the professor's approach to questions; they are well-prepared but organize their thoughts differently.
  • Building a series of questions that a particular student answers by beginning with relatively easy questions before proceeding to harder questions will allow the student to gain confidence with some on-target answers before the challenging steps.
  • Rephrasing a question if a student seems stumped rather than merely repeating the question again will allow a student who found the phrasing of the question to be confusing to realize what the professor is asking.  Merely repeating the same words is often unhelpful in moving the conversation forward.
  • Realizing that your multiple questions to a student who is having trouble may be misperceived by the student can suggest another approach.  You may be trying to help that student sort out the material and to guide the student to understanding.  However, the student may feel that the experience is akin to being turned on a spit over an open fire.  By using positive prompts, you can make the experience less stressful.  "Good first step, but let's look again at the next step."  "Good argument, but let's back up and see how you got there."  "You are on the right track, but broaden your issue statement beyond the very specific facts in this case."  "That is a paraphrase of the rule, give me a more precise in the rule statement."
  • Introduce your series of questions to give more context to the students before you start calling on people.  They will understand better how the questions fit into the discussion and the level of analysis you are looking for in the series.  "We have talked about each of the separate cases for today, but now let's try to synthesize the cases and see how they relate to one another and to today's topic."   

Part of the problem with Socratic Method is that students do not know how to prepare effectively for the experience.  Here are some hints for students to get ready for the Socratic Method:

  • Recognize what questions the professor almost always asks about each case during class.  Think about the answers to those standard questions during your class preparation.
  • When reading for a continuing topic, think about the topic-specific questions that the professor has been asking and be prepared to answer those topic-specific questions.
  • Before the class, consider the case from 360 degrees.  In addition to understanding the case deeply (its separate case brief parts and details), consider the case more broadly (how does it fit with the other cases read for that day and into  the larger topic).
  • Practice explaining the case and answering your professor's standard and topic-specific questions aloud.  Talk to an empty chair, your dog, or a very understanding friend.  You will have more confidence when called on if you have rehearsed your answers.  If you cannot explain the case to an empty chair, then you do not understand it well enough to explain it to your professor in front of others.  Re-read the case sections that you did not understand or reflect more deeply on the case and try your explanation and question answers again.
  • When the professor calls on other students, answer the question silently in your head.  Compare your answer to what the other student says and what the professor indicates.  As you realize you are usually right, it will give you greater confidence for when the professor calls on you.
  • When called on, think about the question asked and take a deep breath before answering.  Many mistakes are made because students blurt out something they immediately realize is wrong or answer a different question than actually asked.
  • If you do not understand the question, ask the professor to rephrase it.  If you do not hear the question, ask the professor to repeat it.
  • Remember that many questions in law school do not have right answers.  There are many questions that seasoned attorneys disagree on about the answers.  You need to approach the questions with the realization that "it depends" may be the reality and make the best arguments possible.
  • View Socratic Method as a learning opportunity: how to think on your feet; how to improve your analysis; how to find out what you overlooked and need to notice in the next case;  how to get over your fear of speaking in front of others. 
  • Remember that most people in class are not judging you when you are the student called on for Socratic Method.  About a third are relieved it was not them.  About a third are looking ahead frantically because they realize their turns are coming up.  About a third are busy taking notes and looking for the answers. 
  • Every lawyer I know has at least one or more stories to tell about their own experiences with Socratic Method.  You are highly unlikely to get every question right.  You will likely blank out once or twice even when prepared.  You will misunderstand the question at times.  It is all part of the learning experience.  Do not dwell on your mistakes.  Instead learn from them and move on.
  • If your professor uses expert panels on assigned days or only calls on you once per semester, do not stop reading and preparing for class because you will not be called on that day.  Always read and prepare for class because your deeper understanding of the material depends on it.  Slacking off will only get you lower grades.
  • Be courteous regarding your professor's and classmates' time.  If you are unprepared because your child went to the emergency room or you became ill, let the professor know before class so time is not wasted calling on you.  If you pass, realize that you are probably going to be called on the next class and be prepared.   

Accept the challenge of Socratic Method and do your best.  Law school will be far less stressful if you can get into the spirit of learning from the technique rather than seeing the experience as an illustration of your success or failure.  Intelligence is not a fixed commodity - a mistake leads to improvement and later success.  (Amy Jarmon)   

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