Guide to the Socratic Method

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Written By LoydMartin

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You’ve likely heard of the Socratic method if you are considering law school.

What is the Socratic Method? Does it only serve to terrorize and torture law students? Is there a way to prepare?

What is the Socratic method?

Socrates, a Greek philosopher, sought to understand the thoughts of his students by asking questions until they were proven wrong. This was known as the “Socratic Method.”

Some professors in law school use the Socratic method for difficult concepts and principles.

Professors may differ in the form of questioning they use.

One end of the spectrum is when a professor randomly selects one student to be his or her class and bombards them with quick-fire questions designed to confuse them and make holes in their arguments.

A professor on the other side of the spectrum casually engages students in an attempt to explore legal principles through series of questions.

This second example shows that the Socratic method is less intimidating and more helpful in collaborative learning.

In both cases, the inquiry begins with simple questions about the case. The professor may ask students to identify:

  • The parties
  • The facts of this case
  • These are the issues
  • The procedural position
  • The decision

The reasoning behind this decision

These questions become more difficult and students are often required to examine the case in light other cases that were read throughout the semester.

Although you will almost certainly encounter the Socratic Method at some point in law school, not every professor chooses to use it. Some professors only use the Socratic method with their first-year students.

What is the Socratic method for?

Three primary purposes are served by the Socratic method:

  • The Socratic method first helps to improve critical thinking skills. Students learn to think more deeply by asking pointed questions that expose the weaknesses and contradictions in arguments.
  • The Socratic method also prepares students for rapid-fire questions and thinking on their feet.
  • Third, because the Socratic method calls on students without prior notice, it forces all students into class preparation and to pay attention during class discussions knowing that they might be called upon at any time.

How can you prepare to use the Socratic method in your life?

You must be prepared if you don’t want your Socratic method to make you look stupid in class or if you want to lessen the anxiety associated with it.

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You should first complete the required reading for each class. We know it is a lot. It’s better to be prepared.

You should also brief all cases. Briefing allows you to organize and identify the components of a case opinion. This includes elements that your profession might ask you to identify.

  • The parties
  • The facts of this case
  • These are the issues
  • The procedural position
  • The decision

The reasoning behind this decision

Some students prefer to summarize each component in a few sentences. Some students prefer different colors of highlighters to identify the sections. No matter what your method may be, the goal is to identify each section while answering questions about it.

You will also want to spend time reflecting on the case and not just reading it. Your professor may ask you to compare the case with other cases in class. You can often get a sense of the direction that your professor will take by considering how the case fits in the bigger picture before class.

Most law students find the Socratic method stressful, but it doesn’t have to. You might find the Socratic method more enjoyable if you are prepared and understand the purpose of the learning tool.