Improving Our Ability to Engage Students – Variations on the Socratic Dialogue

I have sat in the back of the classrooms of accomplished, engaging, beloved law professors who routinely receive excellent student evaluations, and watched as 70% of their students turn unceremoniously away from their notes, instead perusing gmail, ESPN, and Zappos during class.  Not for the whole class, and not during the portions of class where the professor is lecturing.  Instead, laptop screens flip en masse at one, distinct moment: when the professor is engaging another student in socratic dialogue.

This is unexpected from one perspective, as socratic dialogue is supposed to be the “experiential”—or at least the active-learning—portion of large 1L classes, and one would therefore expect socratic dialogue to be relatively engaging.

Why, then, are students tuning out?

We could blame it on the technology of laptops, but I would venture to guess that in the pre-laptop era something similar happened on a purely cognitive level.  Students in the 1970s weren’t perusing websites, but maybe their minds wandered to last night’s big game or a fantasy shopping spree.

Today’s students don’t tune-out because of their laptops, although laptops clearly facilitate the process.  Students tune out because they don’t understand what they are supposed to be learning by watching the professor question another student, particularly when that student seems to have little hope of reaching the “correct” answer the professor is searching for.

Fortunately, there are some simple, tried-and-true techniques to increase student engagement and participation even in very large classes while still employing an essentially socratic methodology.

(1) The pre-write.  Pose the initial question in your socratic dialogue, and have all students take 1-2 minutes to draft an answer.  Then decide which student to call on.  You can repeat the process throughout multiple stages of the socratic questioning process.

Having students pre-write the answer they will then present orally has several advantages.  First, it prompts students to do what they should be doing during socratic questioning of their classmates: considering how they would answer the question themselves if they were on the hot-seat.

Second, you will get better answers to your questions, as students will have had a moment to reflect on their answer prior to articulating it.  (And this is not contrary to good oral argument practice, which socratic dialogue is meant in part to emulate.  Excellent oral advocates often take time to stop, think, and even jot down a few notes before answering a judge’s question.)

Third, this technique alleviates some of the anxiety around class participation, and you may find a broader and more diverse segment of students voluntarily and confidently participating in class.  Indeed, pre-writing is a valuable technique for the independent purpose of supporting diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom.

(2) Pair and share.  I sort of bristle at the touchy-feely sound of this technique, but it is so successful in engaging students (and other audiences, for that matter) that I can hardly quibble with it.  It is a simple alternative to the pre-write.  Instead of having students jot down notes prior to answering a question, have them take 1-2 minutes and turn to the person sitting next to them to discuss how to best answer the question.

Again, this approach has several positive effects.  Students are both more relaxed and better prepared to answer the question.  Further, they begin to form bonds with their peers (this effect is especially apparent when the technique is used at conferences, where attendees can otherwise often go several days without getting to know one another).  Finally, students begin to learn how to work cooperatively, and how to discover understanding through dialogue.

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