Fostering Critical Thinking through the Socratic Method

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Dipti Subramanium, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Reinert Center

As one of the oldest styles of teaching, the Socratic method is an open-ended, inquiry-based model that prompts the students with questions as opposed to providing answers. It is an effective technique for those interested in fostering and promoting critical thinking in the classroom. Often, the biggest misconception amongst instructors is that the Socratic method is one-sided, but in reality, this method promotes an environment for collective dialogue among students and the instructor.  While it is implicitly understood that the role of the instructor is to guide the discussion, the Socratic instructor, along with the students, is a participant. This makes both parties equally accountable in propelling the dialogue through questioning.  The primary aim of the Socratic method is not to introduce or create a fearful and intimidating classroom. Instead, it allows students to become self-aware of their knowledge and comprehension level as well as prepares them for higher level analysis, synthesis, and inquiry. Here are several effective strategies to practicing the Socratic method in the classroom:

1. Implement guidelines for discussion

Inform students that they are expected to carefully listen as well as actively engage in conversation by critiquing the concepts, not the individual.

2. Allow time for silence

Typically, the initial response to silence is to fill it with more questions, but remember that silence is not bad. It enables students to process the information and align their thoughts. Give 30-40 seconds before rephrasing the question or posing a follow-up question.

3. Break a larger class into smaller groups

Having a large class should not prevent you from using the Socratic method. Breaking the class into smaller groups makes it more manageable and conducive to meaningful discussion.

4. Practice frequently

This approach to teaching requires discipline and continual self-assessment. Don’t be afraid to try and identify where the gaps are when things do not go as planned.

5. Be open

You should be willing to acknowledge if you have uncertainties or simply do not know the answer. Remember, you don’t always have to know all the answers but can always offer your perspectives on the subject matter.


  4. Hawkins-Leon, C. G. (1998). Socratic Method-Problem Method Dichotomy: The Debate Over Teaching Method Continues, The. BYU Educ. & LJ, 1.

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