By John D Rich, Jr., Kailani Capote, and Gabrielle Taylor

“So class, since we have finished the chapter on photosynthesis, I would like each of you to write down as many steps involved as you can remember. Once you have done that, please arrange your desks in a circle. We will be conducting a Socratic Seminar today.”

“What’s a Socratic Seminar?”

“It’s an open dialogue for each one of you to discuss your answers and support your ideas. I want you all to know the correct answers and also be able to explain why they are the correct answers.”

An important part of quality instruction is asking students the right questions to get them thinking critically about the things they are learning. In traditional settings, teachers ask students closed-ended questions that require simple answers. If the student answers correctly, he is given praise from the teacher. If the student answers incorrectly, the teacher will correct him. However, using this method does not allow for much dialogue about the subject at hand; students are taught that there is a right or wrong answer, but they often fail to think critically about why an answer is right or wrong.  

Constructivist teaching, on the other hand, is a term used to describe a method that asks open-ended questions and engages students in conversation about a subject area. In this way, teachers can better see which students understand material and if current methods are working. In several studies, students who were taught in this way demonstrated a better understanding of the course material.

One such study, conducted by an educational researcher named Christine Chin in 2007, examined an array of lessons taught by 7th grade science teachers. Through her research, Chin identified one of the most productive styles of instruction as Socratic Questioning. This method includes both instruction and questioning to encourage critical thinking among students and foster open discussion about their peers’ ideas. In this way, students were not only taught necessary information, but also learned through engaged participation.

There are three aspects to Socratic Questioning: 

  • Pumping is a way to continue getting information out of students. One lesson in Chin’s study asked students to explain how they might identify whether an object was pure gold. One student responded by suggesting that they look for the density of the object, which led to the teacher prompting questions on how they might do so. For the duration of the lesson, the teacher continued asking students what steps came next until they reached a solution. Here, we see that the teacher did not give the answer directly, but rather “pumped” the students to come up with answers themselves.
  • Reflective Toss “throws” responsibility back to students when a question is asked.  Instead of answering the question, the teacher asks another question to redirect the student, which eventually leads to a solution for the original query. For example, when a student asked, “How [do you] remove chlorophyll from alcohol?” the teacher responded by saying, “Can you recall our separating techniques? What will you use?” In this way, the student was required to think about his question and other ways to develop a correct answer.
  • Constructive Challenge is a method employed when students give incorrect answers. Instead of teachers automatically telling students they are wrong—or simply giving students the correct answer—they pose other questions that help pupils rethink their response. An example of this was seen when a teacher asked students to determine the volume of a wooden block that floats. After one student gave an answer, the teacher replied, “Was it necessary for you to find the volume of water?... Could you have done [this] with [fewer] steps?” 

These examples illustrate how teachers can engage students in the learning process, and they include methods which are often used after teaching a topic. Socratic Questioning helps to take student understanding to a deeper level, and simultaneously helps the teacher measure how much students have mastered during the instruction phase. Chin (2007) also found that, “when using Socratic questioning, the teacher acted as an interlocutor and a coach who provided scaffolding through asking guiding questions to advance students’ thinking.”  

So, the next time you teach an important topic, try using one or all of these methods in class discussion (even as an alternative to a quiz or exam). It’s likely your students—and you—will learn something and have fun doing it!


Chin, C. (2007), Teacher questioning in science classrooms: Approaches that stimulate productive thinking. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44: 815–843.

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