« All that Glisters is Not Gold (Yes, I spelled Glisters right.) | Main | "Law, Religion & Ethics: A Multi-Faith Dialogue" »

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Socratic Method, Love The One You're With?: Do You Allow Students to Opt Out of Class Participation for a Given Class Session or Sessions?

In a post on The Faculty LoungeJacqueline Lipton recounts her experience at the AALS meat market, with candidates invariably indicating that their teaching style is "soft socratic." Professor Lipton then notes that she would probably describe her own teaching style as soft socratic, and I think that most professors would do the same (Personally, I describe my teaching style as soft socratic method combined with the problem method [more on this in a later post]). As Paul Bateman noted in Toward Diversity in Teaching Methods in Law School: Five Suggestions from the Back Row, 17 QLR 397, 404 (1997), a study by Steven Friedland "indicated that the most widely used teaching technique was the Socratic method: a staggering ninety-seven percent of those teaching first year classes reported using the Socratic method, with the use of alternative teaching techniques decreasing as a teacher became more experienced or tenured!" Is this because, as one of the commenters on Professor's Lipton's post noted, most law professors only saw the socratic method in law school? Is the problem method the RC Cola of teaching methodologies? And what do professors mean by soft socratic method? These are some of the questions that I will try to answer and have professors answer in a series of posts this month.

My first post on this topic addresses the question of what professors mean by soft socratic. And my first question is to what extent law professors allow students to "opt or or "take a pass" for a given class session or class sessions and whether those professors that do view this as an aspect of the soft socratic method. You can answer this question by responding to the following poll and/or leaving a comment.

Do You Allow Students To Opt Out of Class Participation for a Given Class Session or Class Sessions?

View Results
Free poll from Free Website Polls

Personally, I allow students to opt out as long as they let me know that they are opting out before the start of class. I don't have any set policy on the number of times that a student can opt out, but I don't think that I have ever had a student who opted out more than twice in a given course, with most students opting out only once if at all. Usually, students will simply e-mail me before class and let me know that they are opting out because they have been a bit under the weather or got caught up in law review or moot court and have fallen behind in the reading. Often times the student will volunteer to answer questions the following class, so the student ends up not taking a hit on class participation.

So, why do I allow students to opt out? Well, first of all, before I allowed students to opt out, students who were clearly unprepared for class feebly attempted to answer questions, and I don't think that worked out especially well for the student, me, or the class. Second, I remember in law school students skipping classes because they were unprepared and feared being called upon. I would much rather have such students let me know that they need to opt out and attend class rather then skip the class session.

This second reason stems not only from concerns about learning but also concerns about the stress faced by students. In Perceptions of Stress and Control in the First Semester of Law School, 32 Willamette L. Rev. 593, 603, 604 (1996), Suzanne C. Segerstrom notes the feelings of helpfulness and lack of control suffered by law students in law school in general and with the socratic method in particular. Segerstrom goes on to conclude:

Obviously, the Socratic method is not going to disappear from American legal education. Understanding the role of control in the impact of the Socratic method, however, offers realistic options for reducing its negative effect. Realizing that both real and perceived control have positive effects, a number of changes seem possible. For example, an increasing number of law professors offer students the option of passing when called on in class. Even if the option is never exercised, the mere opportunity to exert control might have positive effects on the psychological well-being of students.

This is a large part of the reason why I allow students to opt out. And readers, if you allow students to opt out, do you do so for similar or different reasons? And if you don't allow students to opt out, why not?

Finally, if you are a soft socratic professor, what makes you soft socratic? Are you soft socratic because you (a) allow students to opt out, (b) try to assist students in answering questions under your socratic approach and not act like Kingsfield, (c) don't dock students for insufficient class participation, or (d) mix socratic method with other teaching method? All of the above? None of the above?

-Colin Miller

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on March 4, 2010 at 09:00 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Socratic Method, Love The One You're With?: Do You Allow Students to Opt Out of Class Participation for a Given Class Session or Sessions? :


I really like your use of spot polling and academic sources in your blogs -- especially on this topic, which affects us all. I don't think that many of us enjoy the luxery of unadulterated "cold" Socratic method, without respite, even if we were so inclined, given the current emphasis on pleasing students. I like, and generally use, Bruce Boyden's method (comment posted above) of going on to the next questions - I agree that it's more important, generally, to encourage students to take the material discussed and formulate arguments, than to present the case.

Posted by: mj | Mar 4, 2010 10:55:11 PM

I'm not sure where I fit on the poll. I occasionally cold call, particularly with first-years. I'll let them go if they insist that they don't know the answer, but my schtick with first-years is to try to point out that they know or can articulate more than they think they can, which is usually true. So I'll say "forget about the case, how would you argue X?" or "what do you remember?" or "don't be afraid to be obvious". I'm much less worried about encouraging reading -- I don't want to run a boot camp -- than I am about encouraging students to put their thoughts into words that resemble a legal argument.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 4, 2010 4:45:14 PM

I use an opt-in method myself. I definitely like it for upper-level classes, but I'm not sure I'll do it next year for 1Ls.

Posted by: Chris | Mar 4, 2010 1:17:50 PM

I think there's confusion about what the Socratic method is, and I may well share it. I understand the Socratic method to be a particular kind of dialogue where the main speaker asks the audience a successive series of open-ended questions that cause them to think hard about the complexities of a given issue (without necessarily coming to a clear answer).

If this is right, then I suspect many law profs are not actually using the Socratic method, but just a dialogic approach (as opposed to just lecturing without any Q&A, which is typical in college), or perhaps a mix of each. When I call on students, it's sometimes to ask hard open-ended questions, but it's often also to simply get key features of a case or issue out there so we can all build on it. Whether the latter counts as "modified Socratic," I don't know (though there's obviously no agreed-upon meaning of this term; it's just a term people have fallen in love with at the moment).

Nor do I think opt-outs are related to the question of whether (or how much) one is Socratic in the classroom. That's an issue of classroom methodology; opting out is a matter of classroom management. For what it's worth, though, I give students three free passes per semester, so that if they're unprepared for any reason, they can simply tell me before class and I won't call on them. I've found that this works pretty well.

Posted by: Dave | Mar 4, 2010 12:23:56 PM

Juliet, I agree that cold calling could be viewed as non-Socratic. I also agree that the Socratic method can involve the use of problems. The tough part about posts in this area is that there are no set definitions for any of these methodolgies. When I distinguish the Socratic method from the problem method, I am (roughly) using the definitions laid out in The Socratic Method-Problem Method Dichotomy: The Debate Over Teaching Method Continues, 1998 B.Y.U. Educ. & L.J. 1 (1998).

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 4, 2010 11:22:42 AM

I have never understood the concerns over student stress. Students must face very stressful situations during the practice of law. Getting called out on a moment's notice to perform in front of a partner, client, opposing counsel, or judge is more stressful than the Socratic process.

I do not teach law, although I aspire to. Nevertheless, I can unequivocally say that the classes I learned the most from, and form which I retain the most info, were some form of Socratic class where 'opt-out' was not an option. Most of my classmates agree with this.

Grad school, especially in a professional program, shouldn't be about excuses. It should be about results. Own up if you're not prepared, take the social punishment, and hopefully you will be more prepared the next time.

And the value of the Socratic approach? It teaches you how to think and approach difficult problems. There is no such thing as a case on point. Understanding how to draw logical conclusions and massage legal theory to fit the facts comes through a Socratic approach more readily than most approaches.

Frankly, I was disappointed more classes were not in the Socratic tradition -- although it should also be noted some classes just don't work well with the Socratic approach. (Code-based classes tend to be less effective.)

I will say, however, that a combination Socratic/problem-based approach to a class can work -- if you have the time.

Finally, I think Ms. Moringiello hits on some important distinctions. Cold-calling, a la Kingsfield in Paperchase, is not 'Socratic.' It can be used in a Socratic method, but the method's definition does not require it.

Rather, soft-socratic to me seems to be more of a combination of Socratic classes sprinkled with lectures, or vice versa. A few of my professors, some of them the best at the Socratic method, had to hold lecture classes in order to catch up and stay on schedule.

Posted by: John | Mar 4, 2010 11:14:22 AM

One problem with the "soft Socratic" definition is that many seem to confuse the Socratic method with the practice of cold calling students about cases. I don't think that Socrates himself engaged in cold calling. The "problem method" can also be the Socratic method. In fact, in my experience, the Socratic method works best with problems.

Posted by: Juliet Moringiello | Mar 4, 2010 9:58:29 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.