Socratic Questioning:

Why is it Appropriate for Academia?

October 28, 2018 by Greg Cannioto

“Something feels off about this sentence to me. Do you think it might be a sentence fragment?” asks the consultant.

“I think there’s something wrong with it, yeah. It sounded strange when it was said out loud. Do you think I should say it was my boss that said this? It’s not obvious who’s speaking,” replies the writer.

“That’s a good point, because the subject . . .” the consultant begins.

“There’s no subject at all, is there?” the writer interjects, making a note to change their draft.

The consultant, having a great deal of experience with sentence fragments, knew that there was no subject in the sentence. They also knew there was no point in just telling the writer to put in a subject. If the writer didn’t understand why, they probably wouldn’t learn as much for their future writing. So the consultant plays dumb, or to use a slightly more classic description, they ask Socratic questions until the writer puzzles the answer out themselves. In the above scenario, both the consultant and the writer used Socratic questioning to make their points.

Writing Centers have an advantage over other areas within a university when it comes to Socratic questioning. Consultants tend to work one-on-one with writers, and because too much directive consulting can put one at risk of doing the writer’s work for them, it's safer to lean toward non-directive methods whenever possible. Socratic questioning is just one aspect of it. In the example at the start of this post, the writer is treated more like an equal in the process of fixing the fragment, so any future problems in this area could be solved by the writer themselves. Thus, asking questions instead of directing can hopefully create more self-improvement for the writer over time. That said, Writing Centers have always been a special case in terms of implementing Socratic questioning. It’s important to consider how overall academia can benefit from it as well. In the scenario above, the writer and the consultant used questions to approach the same conclusion. How is Socratic questioning useful in academia outside of the Writing Center?

Asking students questions has always been important to teaching. It lets the expert know where students stand on the topic they’re being taught, helps crystalize the material by giving students a chance to directly engage with the material and immediately receive feedback, and allows the expert to immediately tailor the experience based on how comfortably the students can answer the questions. In a writing consultation, if I ask if something feels off and the writer immediately catches the issue without further prompting, I know it was probably a simple error, and the writer understands how to address this error. If the writer still doesn’t understand the topic at hand after several questions, I know that further discussion, possibly with more directive consulting, is appropriate. The same benefits as listed above can be gained by Socratic questioning while teaching in a university setting. Although it may be more difficult to incorporate it in a larger group setting, it should provide the same results.

Academia, especially in teaching, tends to default to a lecture format. Classes are more specifically focused and usually pre-planned. Furthermore, class sizes can reach into the hundreds. Students are familiar with being lectured at as well, as public schools cram more and more students into a single classroom. Thus, it becomes easy for instructors to spend the whole time talking as students’ eyes glaze over. Speaking from my experience as a student, an early class, a PowerPoint presentation in the dark, and a long lecture are the perfect ingredients for sleeping through half of class unintentionally. College professors try to alleviate the effects of long lectures by having office hours, being available via email, or inviting students to ask questions. That said, it’s sometimes difficult for students to ask questions unprompted, and a lecture-heavy classroom format means interrupting to ask questions, which feels awkward and uncomfortable. Inserting questions, even gimme questions that any student should be able to answer, into your classroom format creates a back and forth that could help students feel more comfortable and engaged.

Don’t just think Socratic questioning is for teachers and consultants. It’s for students too! Comparably, as a student in a course, it can sometimes help to be aware of Socratic questioning practices, recognize when an expert is asking you questions for your own benefit, and consider why these questions are being asked in terms of the overall concept being taught. This meta-understanding of the questions being asked, instead of just answering the questions as they come, will help you as a student understand the connections between the material in a course. This understanding can also help connect some of the vaguer theory in college courses to more concrete examples.

Luckily in recent years, a shift in teaching practices from simply lecturing toward students to engaging them more directly has begun. In my classes, I had attempted this by having lecture portions and activity portions, but this led to a hard reversal from a teacher-led classroom to a student-led classroom. I think it was likely that this was overwhelming for some of my students. In future classes I teach, I fully intend to ask more questions, and I hope students will in turn answer more questions. I hope this will make the lectures feel more collaborative and keep students more engaged. I personally look forward to seeing how academia can keep students engaged as more and more of them enter universities. Socratic questioning is just one method. Can you think of any others?