Using Socratic Instruction in the Classroom

   By Ryan Nielson and Brian Merrill


Instructional techniques modeled on Socrates are many.  They range from the formal dialectic to methods that resemble inquiry based instruction.  The questioning technique or the guided discussion often called the Socratic Method or Socratic Dialogue is seen almost universally as the foundation of the modern day seminar or discussion-based classroom.  In the links below, two BYU-Idaho professors discuss their understanding and use of these techniques.  Ryan Nielson, a professor of physics, discusses what he calls "guided Socratic inquiry" while Brian Merrill, professor of philosophy, discusses the traditional Socratic dialectic as he uses it in his classroom.


Can you explain your understanding of Socratic instruction?

What is it supposed to accomplish that's different from other forms of teaching?

Why did you decide to use this approach in your classroom?

What results have you seen?

How have students responded to this approach?

How has your understanding of Socratic instruction impacted the way you design your courses?

Do you see links or overlaps with the Learning Model?

What would you advise someone interested in trying this?

 For more on the use of Socratic instructional techniques, click here to see the tool on the Learning and Teaching website or click on the image below:

Posted March 18, 2010 Comments (10)

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Philip Waters

Tuesday, August 03, 2010 9:30 PM

I had a hard time from this article understanding what the principle of socratic dialogue is.
From what I gather it is opening a discussion and talking it through as a class?

Matt Dredge

Sunday, August 08, 2010 3:14 AM

I have learned about myself and the way I learn best, follows this pattern closely. As I think through processes or methods and am guided to the "why" of things, I am able to remember this much easier.

Guided independent thinking seems like an apporpriate synonym.

Derik Robertson

Monday, August 09, 2010 9:44 PM

I have used and enjoyed this method many times. However, students need to know that the questions come out of a spirit of charity and genuine desire to help students progress otherwise some students just assume that the questioner is attacking them. After all, Socrates was put to death because he ticked off enough important people through this method.

Gale Pooley

Thursday, August 12, 2010 1:56 AM

I have found this method to be very effective if the student understands the objective. The list of examples in this tool is very helpful. One of the best is " What is needed to answer that question?" Many times students need to think about what facts are necessary before applying logic to arrive at a defensible conclusion. The Socratic Method drills down to get to the foundation of reasoning.

Gale Pooley

Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:28 AM

Regarding Derik's comment: "After all, Socrates was put to death because he ticked off enough important people through this method."

It wasn't his Teaching Method that got Socrates in trouble, it was the charge of "corrupting the young" and "not believing in the gods of the city."

Jack Fuller

Friday, August 13, 2010 10:32 PM

My experience with this type of method was in law school, where it was used to get students to "think like a lawyer" and recognize that who wins or loses in a case is usually subjective. But the real value came in learning to spot the issues, not necessarily resolve them, which is a valuable judgment skill.

Joseph Griffin

Monday, August 16, 2010 2:14 AM

Regarding the first portion of Derik's comment: "However, students need to know that the questions come out of a spirit of charity and genuine desire to help students progress otherwise some students just assume that the questioner is attacking them."

What we understand of Socrates is almost entirely a result of Plato's mythologizing of him in his dialogues (where Socrates is the key interlocutor). Often, although Socrates states that he is seeking mutual benefit and the good of the republic, there is (in my reading of certain dialogues~which you can of course take exception to) a spirit of dismissal and prefabrication. I agree with Derik, in part, that this dialectic method be rooted in true cooperation--I have to ask myself if I am genuinely interested in my students novel answers or am I ONLY simply trying to lead them down a path I have pre-selected.

Jacob Hasler

Thursday, April 07, 2011 2:56 PM

This is a method I try to use frequently in my classes, mostly because of the successes I've seen with students in one-on-one tutoring sessions. In the class it can be a bit hard to keep everyone with you as you guide the students to new knowledge by asking them questions that will help them connect ideas they already know. Because of this, it is very important to know where you want to end up with the lecture. That said, I love this structure because it still allows for some freedom in the discussion in how you get to the final point and it verifies that the students comprehend what you are covering as you go through the material. I've used it many times to guide one student through their writing process in front of the class so that it becomes an example of an exercise that the students can perform themselves at home.

Chris Youngberg

Friday, April 15, 2011 12:33 AM

I've always understood the Socratic method to be the general use of questions to lead a student to a deeper understanding of the chosen topic. I can see I have a bit more to learn and some practicing to do.

Sarah D'Evegnee

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 6:36 PM

Thank you for giving Socrates some credit for his contribution to the underlying principles of the learning model! I was both relieved and pleased to see this article. Thank you for giving a pat on the head that resides on the shoulders of the great ones upon which we sit!

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