What Is the Point of the So-Called Socratic Method?

Nearly all professors at the Law School at times employ some version of the so-called Socratic method, namely a method of teaching that involves the professor conducting class by asking questions of students (a method that is of course quite different from that employed by the man who lends his name to the practice). For most students, question-based teaching constitutes a large departure from the methods of instruction they’ve previously encountered, and the adjustment can be challenging and traumatic While working through their trauma, some students may overlook the diversity of teaching methods often termed “Socratic.” In addition to obvious (and crucial) variations in terms of the mechanics of whom is actually called on, e.g. random cold-calling as opposed to predetermined panel assignments, professors differ wildly based upon the general approach they adopt in their questioning. While some such methods are very effective for creating an engaging class, others are demonstrably less so.

Let’s begin with an approach that is particularly common in 1L classes, what I will call the “Did you do the reading?” method. Professors adopting this tactic often begin by asking students to recite the facts of cases. Although only a handful of students will be asked questions on any given day, fear does the work, and the rest of students come to class prepared. Asking questions regarding basic elements of cases suffers from two defects. First, it is needlessly time-consuming, as students struggle to recall which facts attach to which case name. Second, and more important, students inevitably tend to focus when reading on those aspects of the case most likely to be asked about during class. Thus, rather than encouraging students to think broadly about the case’s holding and the way it fits within the doctrine, the “did you do the reading?” approach encourages memorization of facts—clearly not the focus of law school exams nor law school generally.

A second prevalent approach to law school teaching is the “tell me what I’m thinking” method. This strategy involves the professor attempting to lead students to reach conclusions that he or she seeks to convey to the class rather than simply communicating this information directly, reasoning that perhaps if students reach the conclusion on their own, the revelation is more rewarding. Although occasionally effective if done well, this method fails often, as professors often do not elicit their desired responses from students who are viewing the cases from a perspective that is very different from that of their vastly more experienced professors.

In contrast, a third approach is the “tell me what you’re thinking” approach. Professors adopting these methods tend to provide the facts of the cases themselves and then ask students for their take on the issues and their assessments of the court’s decision. This approach is largely innocuous, although it often fails to generate the discussion that professors may wish to provoke.

Finally, I will call the fourth method the “I’m asking you the questions you should be asking yourself” approach. When used well, this approach illustrates the true value of the question-based approach to teaching law school. Professors who have mastered this approach ask carefully thought-out questions that cause students to see aspects of the case they had overlooked and to appreciate the importance of the case within the broader doctrine. True experts of this method not only ask interesting questions but also listen carefully to the responses, allowing the students’ comments to direct the flow of the discussion while continuing to make progress toward the day’s objectives.

Professors skilled at using the Socratic method lead by example in teaching legal reasoning. The incisive questions they ask echo in the minds of students as they read assigned cases, their own reasoning abilities improved by having been trained to ask themselves the questions asked by their professors. Although at times frightening and unproductive when not used effectively, the Socratic method has a vital role to play in law school education and has thus rightfully stood the test of time.

The author is an anonymous Harvard Law student.