Surviving the Socratic Method: What you need to know

For students beginning law school, one of the most common fears is the Socratic method of questioning. The Socratic method is the infamous way that law professors teach: rather than lecturing to students, they engage students in a guided question and answer session to lead students to a conclusion.
The point of employing the Socratic method in law school is simple—to get you used to thinking on your feet and to engage in thoughtful discussion even when you don’t have all the answers. To help allay the understandable anxiety, we’ll give you a sense of what to expect, along with a few tips for adjusting to the Socratic method.

Types of cold calling

While the question-and-answer structure of the Socratic method is pretty universal (though not all professors use the method), the specific style will change from class to class. There are two primary styles deployed by professors: cold calling and the on-call style. We’ll break down both for you.

1. Old school cold calling

The professor picks a student to call on, seemingly at random, and asks that student a question about the assigned reading. The question could be specific, such as “What was the holding in Brown v. Brown?” or broad, as in “Can you tell us about United States v. Smith?” When dealing with specific questions, the professor is usually looking for a straightforward answer. If asked a broad inquiry about a case, you are typically expected to provide:

  • A brief summary of the facts and procedural posture
  • The holding
  • The rule of law (click here if you don’t know what this is)
  • How that case fits into the context of other cases that you’ve studied

Of course, if all questions posed in the Socratic method were easy, then incoming students wouldn’t be so terrified. But the line of questioning usually doesn’t end after only one or two questions. A typical line of a Socratic method of questioning will begin with easy questions about the specifics of a case, but then move to more complicated queries, testing the student’s knowledge of past cases and holdings, and how a court’s reasoning might change if presented with different facts. Often, questions lead down a path where you are forced to contradict something you already said (this is what Socrates was famous for). In many cases, the professor will continue to ask you questions until you start to get them wrong or until the questions stop having a right or wrong answer.

Tip: The most important thing that you can do to make this process easier is to complete your assigned reading and brief your cases. (This might not sound like much, but it is.) Even if you stumble your way through a professor’s inquiries, being organized and prepared for class will put you in a much better position to learn something.

2. The kinder, gentler on-call style

Some professors dislike the anxiety created by the traditional Socratic method and instead use an “on-call” system. In this method, students are assigned, either individually or in groups, to be available for questioning on a specific class date or week. The professor will then keep their questioning confined to these students or volunteers when asking questions about the reading.

Even in classes with an on-call style, it’s still a good idea to prepare for every class, particularly because law school classes are often difficult to follow without first doing the assigned reading. But this should go without saying: You should be thoroughly prepared on the dates you’re on call. Professors who use this twist on the method expect students to prepare when they know that they will be called on. If you choose not to prepare properly for a class when you are on call (or worse, you fail to attend without a justifiable excuse), then your professor won’t be happy.

How to Minimize Your Chances of Being Cold Called

Despite appearances, professors who use the Socratic method of questioning rarely call on students at random. They will start somewhere and get through everyone in the class at least once or twice. Whatever your professor’s quirks or method, you will likely figure them out within the first few weeks, after which you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.

Some professors favor one side of the room over another, or front rows over back rows, for questioning. Other professors will take note of frequently absent students and make a point of calling on them when they do attend class. Others will direct their questioning at students who show up to class without their materials, or who appear distracted during class. Some professors specifically won’t call on people who volunteer, while other professors will call on students who try to pick up the easy brownie points. If you’re bored in class, and decide to wander off into the internet, be sure to be discreet about it. Professors are very good at identifying students who are off task, so wander at your own risk.

Tip: Answering questions WITHOUT being called on is the best way to minimize getting cold called. Providing an answer when you know what you’re talking about reduces your chances of getting called on when you aren’t prepared with many professors.

When You’re Called On and…

1. You know the answer.

By all means, answer with confidence and the knowledge that you will be asked follow-up questions. If you answer the first couple questions correctly, then you have likely done your job and met the professor’s expectations. If you’re stumped on the 10th question, then you hit a homerun.

2. You don’t know the answer or are unsure.

You have two choices: a) try to answer the question or b) try to pass. Be wary of passing – some professors flatly refuse to let students pass. Others will grudgingly skip over you, but make a point of returning to you for questions later in the same class or during the next class. Assuming you read at least some of the relevant case, it’s best to try to answer the question. Remember: it’s okay to be wrong. The story of the professor who kicked a student out of class who answered a question wrong is largely a creation of the movies.

And even if you have a deer-in-the-headlights moment, it will be quickly forgotten by your classmates (and by you). Everyone experiences this at some point during law school. Plus, while some professors will reward outstanding in-class contributions, very few will penalize for poor contributions, so there’s very little downside beyond fleeting embarrassment. (Just wait and see how little you care about looking bad in class by the time you’re a 3L.)

Tip: If you find yourself truly stumped by a professor, then you can attempt to redirect the question by answering with your own question. Done well, this will send your professor off onto a tangent and provide you cover from answering the original question. Done poorly, and the professor will see right through you, so use this technique with caution. Whatever your tactics in dealing with the Socratic method of questioning, it’s best to be honest with your professors and to prepare for each class.

And remember: getting a question wrong may seem like the end of the world, but it happens to everyone. So when it happens to you, just accept it and be better prepared the next day.


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