Questions and answers || The “Socratic Method”

Questions and answers – While most of us use questions as a way of prodding students and instantly testing comprehension, there are simple ways of tweaking our questioning techniques which increase student involvement and comprehension. Though some of the techniques listed here are “obvious”, we will proceed on the principle that the obvious sometimes bears repeating (a useful pedagogical principle, to be sure!).

The “Socratic Method”

Taking its namesake from the most famous gadfly in history, this technique in its original format involved instructors “testing” student knowledge (of reading assignments, lectures, or perhaps applications of course material to a wider context) by asking questions during the course of a lecture. Typically, the instructor chooses a particular student, presents her with a question, and expects an answer forthwith; if the “chosen” student cannot answer the question presented, the instructor chooses another (and another) until the desired answer is received.

This method has come under criticism. based on claims that it singles out students (potentially embarrassing them), and/or that it favors only a small segment of the class (i.e., that small percentage of the class who can answer any question thrown at them). In addition, once a student has answered a question they may not pay much attention as it will be a long time before the teacher returns to them for a second question. In spite of these criticisms, we feel that the Socratic method is an important and useful one; the following techniques suggest variations which enhance this method, avoiding some of these pitfalls.

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1. Wait Time :

Rather than choosing the student who will answer the question presented, this variation has the instructor WAITING before calling on someone to answer it. The wait time will generally be short (15 seconds or so)- but it may seem interminable in the classroom. It is important to insist that no one raise his hand (or shout out the answer) before you give the OK. in order to discourage the typical scenario in which the five students in the front row all immediately volunteer to answer the question, and everyone. else sighs in relief. Waiting forces every student to think about the question. rather than passively relying on those students who are fastest out of the gate to answer every question.

When the wait time is up, the instructor asks for volunteers or randomly picks a student to answer the question. Once students are in the habit of waiting after questions are asked, more will get involved in the process.

2. Student Summary of Another Student’s Answer :

In order to promote active listening, after one student has volunteered an answer to your question, ask another student to summarize the first student’s response. Many students hear little of what their classmates have to say, waiting instead for the instructor to either correct or repeat the answer. Having students summarize or repeat each others’ contributions to the course both fosters active participation by all students and promotes the idea that learning is a shared enterprise. Given the possibility of being asked to repeat a classmates’ comments, most students will listen more attentively to each other.

3. The Fish Bowl :

Students are given index cards, and asked to write down one question concerning the course material. They should be directed to ask a question of clarification regarding some aspect of the material which they do not fully understand; or, perhaps you may allow questions concerning the application of course material to practical contexts. At the end of the class period (or, at the beginning of the next class meeting if the question is assigned for homework), students deposit their questions in a fish bowl. The instructor then draws several questions out of the bowl and answers them for the class or asks the class to answer them. This technique can be combined with others

4. Quiz/Test Questions :

Here students are asked to become actively involved in creating quizzes and tests by constructing some (or all) of the questions for the exams. This exercise may be assigned for homework and itself evaluated (perhaps for extra credit points). In asking students to think up exam questions, we encourage them to think more deeply about the course material and to explore major themes, comparison of views presented, applications, and other higher-order thinking skills.

Once suggested questions are collected, the instructor may use them as the basis of review sessions, and/or to model the most effective questions. Further, you may ask students to discuss the merits of a sample of questions submitted; in discussing questions, they will significantly increase their engagement of the material to supply answers. Students might be asked to discuss several aspects of two different questions on the same material including degree of difficulty, effectiveness in assessing their learning, proper scope of questions, and so forth.

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