Help Students Tackle Misconceptions With Socratic Questioning

Help Students Tackle Misconceptions With Socratic Questioning
Monica Fuglei June 14, 2016

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Socratic Method Workshop

Students often come pre-loaded with assumptions and misunderstandings about the material we seek to teach them. Like the stubborn factory settings on an iPhone, it can be incredibly difficult to reconfigure these mistaken beliefs.

Teachers need strategies to banish student sophistry

In a recent piece on teaching strategies, NPR blogger Anya Kamenitz explains that teachers who don’t understand student misconceptions have difficulty correcting them. An essential way to help students restructure their understanding is to use Socratic questioning. This method creates a student-centered environment where active inquiry can unravel misreadings of course content, misconceptions about current events and even untruths lurking in personal beliefs.

Socratic summer workshop: Teach students to conquer misconceptions by using an ancient philosophy

Because teaching students how to recognize fallacies can be a fun and instructive process, it’s a good basis for a summer learning workshop. Here are some ideas for using the Socratic approach to help students tackle issues that are relevant to their lives and beneficial to their intellects.

Teacher prep required for Socratic seminars

As teachers, one of our most basic instincts is to answer student questions, rather than rephrase, redirect, and deepen them. Socratic questioning requires us to write questions that take into account potential answers and further misconceptions and encourage students to examine those presumptions.

Effective practice of Socratic reasoning requires some preparation, particularly if teachers intend to dedicate a significant amount of time to the activity. Teachers must provide a compelling topic and encourage students to begin thinking deeply about it, either through journaling, research, or the development of their own questions. Then, teachers must deliberately cultivate questions that expand understanding of the topic.

Practicing Socratic questioning helps teachers anticipate how workshop participants will react

Teamwork on the development of Socratic reasoning, and even pre-workshop practice among teachers, can help them anticipate misunderstandings or the potential direction of some discussions. Teachers should be prepared to redirect student questions to the entire classroom and ask additional questions to help students deepen their thinking on an issue.

Sample workshop: Using Socratic questioning to examine the vaccination controversy

Socratic seminars are a cross-curricular event that can be used in interdisciplinary ways to increase transference of student skills. Here’s an example of how to run a Socratic workshop on the topic of childhood vaccinations:

  • Have students read a series of articles on vaccines and come to class prepared to discuss the topic.
  • Divide the class into groups that have a stake in the topic — for example, doctors, parents and politicians — and task them with exploring the information from the perspective of that group.
  • The teacher-leader asks students a series of Socratic questions:
    • How do vaccines work?
    • Why are they sometimes mandatory?
    • Is this good public policy?
    • Is this based in good research?
    • What is good research?

In each group, finding answers to these questions will lead to a series of reasoning which, in turn, deepens student understanding of both the topic and the importance of good research. This process fulfills learning requirements and increases students’ ability to create connections between areas of core content.

Cementing understanding: Follow-up activities for workshop students

Students should be encouraged to take notes during Socratic seminars and should be given a follow-up assignment or activity that helps cement their newfound understanding. Journal writing or self-assessment are good options, particularly if students are given a prompt or direction. Reflective writing encourages students to think about what they thought they knew versus what they learned in the workshop.

Additionally, some projects can naturally emerge from the Socrates way. The workshop mentioned above might inspire a letter to the editor, a rhetorical analysis of the researched content, or even a poster series on vaccination.

Cross-curricular applications of the Socratic questioning

Adopting the Socratic approach doesn’t always require a seminar. Existing lectures can be modified to include questioning and encouraging students to examine misconceptions. Because our ability to teach students relies on knowing why they may not understand course material, the Socratic approach can be a great way to organize a unit, collecting student misconceptions at the beginning, then gently guiding discussions throughout the unit.

Socratic questioning helps transfer content to students’ long-term memories

Ultimately, knowledge comes not from rote memorization, but from applying and connecting facts and ideas within a larger understanding. Socratic questioning provides students with information and lines of inquiry that help them organize and respond to the content in a way that commits it to long-term memory.

Whether it’s a few questions or an entire workshop, getting to the heart of misconceptions and guiding students to reassemble their understanding of content can significantly improve overall performance. Engaging students in inquiry and challenge rather than correction strengthens teachers’ practice as well.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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