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What is the Socratic Method?

You have likely heard about it. Heard about the sweaty palms, dry throats, and blank stares that it has been known to cause. So, what exactly is the Socratic method and why does it seem to cause so many law students so much anxiety?

The Socratic method is a teaching method in which the professor calls on one student to answer a series of questions usually centered around a particular case. While the rest of the class listens, a debate emerges between the student and the professor that often highlights ambiguities in the relevant law or line of reasoning at play. Typically, the professor selects the student at random or by cold calling, which encourages everyone to come to class prepared.

TL;DR / Key Takeaways

  • The Socratic method is viewed by many as a law school rite of passage; however, it has a number of pros and cons.
  • Through technology, online JD programs have found ways of making the Socratic method a central part of the legal education experience.

History of the Socratic Method

The method is named for the Greek philosopher, Socrates. Known as the “gadfly of Athens,” Socrates would question and debate others on a wide array of topics using a systematic approach. According to Plato, his student, Socrates would begin by asking a general question. When an answer had been provided, Socrates would reply with a new question, which revealed an exception to the rule, a contradiction in the response, or other evidence of the answer’s problematic nature.

Pros and Cons of the Socratic Method

Fans of the Socratic method note that it requires students to speak in front of a large group and apply critical reasoning skills “on their feet” (often literally—some professors require the selected student to stand while she or he responds to the litany of questions). One famously scathing critique of the Socratic method came from a student at Yale Law School in a 1971 law review article entitled “How the Law School Fails: A Polemic.” In the article, the student author, Duncan Kennedy, equates the Socratic method to “an assault” and goes on to say, “The observation that students often respond physically and emotionally to questioning as though they were in the presence of a profound danger is simply true.” (Kennedy went on to become a professor at Harvard Law School and a founding member of the Critical Legal Studies movement.)

Another Harvard Law School professor, Jeannie Suk Gersen, wrote in her article, “The Socratic Method in the Age of Trauma,” “If [the Socratic method] is used to elicit reasoning and argument in a shared dialogue toward a better understanding, rather than to produce a narrow range of “correct” answers, it can highlight disagreement, conflict, or the possibility of reconsideration.” While the Socratic method can be a means of humiliation and belittlement, when used by professors without malicious intent, it can equip students with skills they will use throughout their careers. For this reason, the Socratic method remains a popular teaching tool at numerous law schools.

The Socratic Method and Online JD Programs

When designing their online JD programs, many law schools focused on how best to incorporate the Socratic method. For the team designing the JDinteractive program at Syracuse University College of Law, including the Socratic method was not only one factor to be considered, but rather a central element of the program.1 The Socratic method is also a primary focus of the Online Hybrid JD program at the University of Dayton School of Law. That program uses technology called a Bidirectional Learning Tool, which enables faculty to use the Socratic method online.2 Through this and other technologies, online JD programs can ensure that students experience the Socratic method first-hand.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced Jeannie Suk Gersen to teach all of her Harvard Law School classes entirely online, she noted that, when the Socratic method is used online, “Students seem less self-conscious and less intimidated than they did in a room of a hundred people, perhaps because speaking on a screen doesn’t feel too different from FaceTime conversations they’re used to having with friends.”3 Her observation suggests that, not only can students learning via online platforms partake in a common law school experience, but they may even excel thanks to the online environment.

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