A teaching and learning talk (i.e. the Socratic method) is a highly directive, structured dialogue in which the teacher uses targeted questions in the attempt to lead students to a particular insight or solution to a problem. A teaching and learning talk thus depends on good questions and effective handling of the students’ answers. The following tips can help the talk proceed smoothly.

Pause after asking a question

Avoid firing off questions at a rapid pace or expecting students to provide answers to questions as soon as they have been asked. This usually results in students giving only short answers, if they give any answers at all. To encourage longer and better answers, it is important to pause after asking a question. The time between asking a question and having students formulate an answer should be balanced carefully. Remember that answers to productive questions (‘thought questions’) require more thinking time than do answers to reproductive questions. Moreover, the thinking time should not be interrupted (e.g. by providing additional information to the original question), as doing so could distract the students’ attention and disturb their thought processes.

Approach incorrect answers positively, whenever possible

Incorrect answers can be approached either negatively or positively. A negative approach (‘Wrong’) ‘No’) makes students more likely to stop participating/answering. A positive approach is therefore preferable. Such an approach could consist of using a good element in the wrong answer as a stepping stone for reaching the appropriate answer and/or giving the student a chance to formulate another answer that could be acceptable.

Call on passive students to answer as well

Students who react spontaneously often also provide the correct answers. It is therefore tempting to rely heavily on them to answer questions, as it helps the lecture to flow smoothly. Nevertheless, students who do not react on their own need attention as well. They should therefore be called on to answer, thereby making them aware that you will not accept passivity and that there is no such thing as a ‘stupid question/answer’ (or at least that they will not be penalised for such questions/answers).

To ensure that all of the students think about a question, it would be better not to call on any students in advance. If no one is called on until after the question has been asked, it can be assumed that every student will come up with an answer, and the answers that are provided can be assessed for their adequacy.

Avoid yes/no questions and questions with obvious answers

Students often do not perceive yes/no questions or questions with obvious answers as being worth responding to.

Yes/no questions can be nevertheless worthwhile when linked to a voting system (Who votes ‘yes’? Who votes ‘no’?), with the teacher asking several students who have voted to justify their choices.

Focus the question further if no correct or incorrect answer is given

If the students do not provide either a correct or incorrect answer, this might mean that the question is unclear and/or too difficult. The tactic of focusing consists of either providing hints that can help students to compose an answer or shifting to a lower-level question that is related to the actual question and that the student is able to answer. For example, students who are not be able to answer a question on the consequences of the Second World War might be able to answer a question like, ‘What happened during the Second World War?’

Ask for further explanation if no answers are forthcoming or if the answers that are provided are weak

Examples include:

  • Could you/someone think of other reasons?
  • What exactly do you mean by…?

The teacher asks for further information without providing additional instructions (the latter is typical of focusing; see above).

Avoid repeating or reformulating your question

Unnecessary, mechanical repetition of your question before calling on a student can impede the progress of a talk. This trains students not to listen to the first question that is asked.

One clear question is preferable to a series of reformulations, which can cause students to be confused about exactly which question they should answer.

Do not answer your own question

Answering your own questions increases the teacher’s participation and decreases the student’s participation in the teaching and learning talk. It can lead to students to become reticent and lazy: ‘The teacher will eventually give the answer (if no one says anything)’.

Avoid repeating or reformulating answers from students

Repeating answers from students unnecessarily can slow the pace of the conversation. It trains students not to listen to their fellow students: ‘the teacher will repeat it anyway’.

Systematically supplementing/reformulating answers given by students can create a sense that their answers are never good (or good enough). This will eventually erode the motivation to search for solid answers.