Perhaps the most effective way to teach graduate students is a through pedagogy that is attributed to the earliest graduate teacher, Socrates. Though our primary source of Socrates’ teaching is through the written word of his most famous pupil, Plato, the Platonic Socrates is the source of the instructional method known commonly as the Socratic Seminar. In short, the Socratic Seminar is a student-driven discussion which incorporates the depth of knowledge and personal interaction with a specific topic.
While the Socratic Seminar is growing in popularity in secondary education, the method is particularly suited to graduate curriculum. At this point academically, students are generally approaching the subject of their study with the intent to pursue a profession or specific academic degrees. Students are matured and are more capable of open discussion with peers. Graduate students also understand the expectation of extensive reading and research required to properly prepare for a Socratic Seminar session. Graduate instructors, in the role of facilitator, also benefit from being able to assess their students as a direct participant in the discussion, rather than the center of a simple query and response class structure.
The Socratic Seminar is also designed to fit easily within the graduate course schedule. Socratic Seminars require time between discussions for reading, research, and reflection. The discussions themselves should run from one hour to ninety minutes, which fits in nicely with most graduate course sessions. In addition the class schedule, Socratic Seminars require six elements to incorporate into the curriculum.
1. Pre-Seminar Activity. This is the one step that is initiated by the instructor in the traditional didactic role. Students are presented with a task to complete that will engage their thoughts toward the upcoming discussion session. This can be a physical project (lab), writing assignment, or other closed end assignment that challenges the students with exploring new information. The assignment can be incorporated as part of a course portfolio, which will help focus students on the importance of the activity.
2. Reading and Research. Independently, students are assigned a reading assignment or topic to research in preparation for the discussion session. This step is the most important step in a successful Socratic Seminar. Students must be well versed in the existing content in order to expand on the topic from personal perspectives during the discussion. It is this reason that this method is so well suited to graduate students, as they tend to be more willing and competent to put in the time required for careful reading and detailed research than lower level students.
3. The Opening Question. Once students are situated in the room, usually in a circle, the instructor offers the opening question to begin the discussion. This question should be a higher level question that leans heavily on the reading or research content for a valid response, though does not have any one right answer. Instead, the question should begin an open-ended discussion. Any member of the class may respond with an answer. From that point, students are encouraged to add onto the previous answer, counter the answer with new facts, or ask new questions for the group.
4. The Role of the Facilitator. While the facilitator for any one session does not have to be the instructor, this is a good role for the instructor to take, at least for the first few sessions. Especially for graduate classes, after Socratic Seminar methodology has been established, the instructor can assign a facilitator, join the group as a participant, or remove themselves from the discussion completely and simply monitor as a spectator. The role of the facilitator is only to clarify and sustain the conversation, not to establish validity of any one speaker. If there is a group question that is not clarified, for example, the facilitator may at that point offer some evidence of fact to help move the discussion forward. If there is a lull in the discussion, the facilitator must then pose a new question with the intent of reinvigorating the dialogue.
5. The Role of the Students. Students should be prepared to engage their peers in an open, courteous dialogue based on knowledge of assigned content and their personal perspectives based on life experience. Again, the reason the Socratic Seminar is custom tailored to the graduate student level of learning is that graduate students will more likely be capable of coming prepared with information and willing to engage in mature dialogue. Students are being evaluated by their participation, so should be prepared to engage in the discussion, even if it is to simply agree with previous statements and add additional personal perspective to the content. Students should also be encouraged to ask questions during the seminar. Asking new questions is an effective way to clarify personal knowledge, as a well as a vital part of the process in keeping the discussion flowing.
6. Post-Seminar Activity. The facilitator can step in and draw the session to a close with a final question for students to respond to in writing, or individually in a closed, informal, oral presentation. Post-seminar activities can also include an evaluation of how the discussion went, led by the instructor with critical feedback, or in an informal discussion amongst the participating students. Any writing or physical assignments used as the post-seminar assessment can also be included in a course portfolio.
A strong discussion originating from a Socratic Seminar creates a curriculum of student-driven knowledge and exploration. Instructors are able to step back from the role of omnipotent course knowledge, and allow students to develop an understanding of new knowledge based on their own research, perception and interaction. This is the perfect model for developing strong minded graduate students.