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As a third-year evening law student, I have come to embrace the Socratic method and profoundly respect the professors who make the effort to use it well. The Socratic method is derived from Socrates’ practice of questioning his students about ethical concepts like virtue and truth. Its original version involved two people, one advancing a particular position, and another questioning that position. The goal of the questioner was to make the proponent contradict himself in a way that proved the questioner’s point. The Socratic method as law students know it was developed in 1870 by the dean of Harvard Law School, Christopher Columbus Langdell, as an element of his newly created case method. At the time, law was mostly taught by apprenticeship. The country’s few law schools relied heavily on lecture-based teaching methods. In contrast, Langdell’s method required the students to read cases for themselves to determine their relevance and incorporated Socratic questioning to probe the fundamental legal issues. Langdell’s methods were hotly criticized by professors, who believed their classroom role was being sidelined, and by students, who preferred the order of formal lectures. In addition, students asked if they were actually learning “the law,” a criticism that still exists today. Despite the criticisms, Harvard stuck with the system, and although it was slow to catch on, by the 1960s the methods were universally employed in American law schools. SOCRATES’ SYSTEM In its purest form, the Socratic method, in conjunction with the case method, works like this: 1. Students study cases before class.

2. In class the professor calls on a student, with no prior warning. 3. The student gives a recitation of the facts and the procedural history. 4. The professor questions the student, probing underlying legal issues, thus forcing the student to identify relevant facts, question assumptions, take a position, and argue in its defense. 5. Meanwhile, the rest of the class remains attentive by answering the professor’s questions in their own minds. The Socratic method has several benefits for students. First, it is a tremendous source of motivation, as fear of public humiliation is a great incentive. Also, questioning promotes active learning by forcing students to grapple with difficult issues, rather than just transcribe the professor’s words. In addition, by definition, the method results in probing the fundamental legal issues common to all aspects of the law. And, finally, students learn to think on their feet. By going toe to toe with the professor or fellow classmates, students gain experience taking and defending a position, as well as confronting fears of public speaking. Despite these and other benefits, by the late 1960s the Socratic method was under fire. Today the most common criticisms are that it is an unnecessarily brutal, ineffective teaching technique that is also unfair to women and minorities. The main contention is that the Socratic method is used by professors to demean students; the anxiety created by the fear of getting called on and the possible humiliation at the hands of your professor creates a stressful environment that is not conducive to learning. As a result, the Socratic method can discourage students from participating and has a negative effect on their self-confidence. A second argument is that the Socratic method is an ineffective teaching method. Some argue that students graduate from law school without knowing the law and don’t have practical legal skills needed for everyday practice. Also, this focus on fundamental legal issues leads to boredom, since the material is covered slowly and class discussion is often dominated by a few. In addition, Socratic questioning relies heavily on the assumption that the rest of the class benefits through “vicarious learning,” but spending an hour listening to classmates banter with the professor can result in confusion and frustration. Lastly, the method fails to accommodate students with different learning styles, such as those who do not learn through competitive, combative exercises. The third major criticism is that the Socratic method is unfair to women and minorities. One argument is that when members of these groups are called on, they may feel as if their comments must represent their group. Another argument stems from a theory developed by feminist groups, most notably a 1994 University of Pennsylvania study by professor Lani Guinier and others. This study argued that women do not learn well from the “ritualized combat” of the Socratic method and advocated the incorporation of more collaborative techniques. The study also showed that women thought the Socratic method created an intimidating environment that impeded their learning and stopped them from fully participating in class. As a result of these criticisms, many law schools abandoned Langdell’s original Socratic style altogether or chose hybrid versions. Common hybrid versions use the traditional Socratic questioning in conjunction with other teaching methods, such as lectures, group projects, and practical exercises, while others allow students to know beforehand when they will be called on or only ask for volunteers. GOOD GRILLIN’ These criticisms often miss what’s great about going a few rounds with your professor in what some have called ritualized combat but what I like to call “good grillin’.” It seems the common thread among the criticisms is not so much a criticism of the Socratic method but of its application. If a professor grills a student in a demeaning manner, then it is cruel and unprofessional. But that has not been my overall experience. Most of my professors who use this method well respectfully question the student until the weaknesses in her reasoning become obvious. They do this with a sense of humor and professional collegiality. Critics also say that the fear of being called on and talking in public creates a negative learning environment. But the truth is, fear is an excellent motivating force. Despite my motivation to succeed, I can’t deny human nature. If I know I’m not going to be called on, it’s midnight, and I have to choose between reading the rest of tomorrow’s assignment or going to sleep, the case will go unread. But if there is a chance it could be my turn on the grill . . . well, let’s just say I have seen 2 a.m. more in the past two years than ever in my life. In addition, critics say that because many students will not enter into trial work, they don’t need the experience of standing in front of their peers getting grilled by their professor. I respectfully disagree. A juris doctorate is a professional degree that must prepare students for real-world legal challenges. All practicing lawyers must present and defend arguments orally, to clients, the opposition, or co-workers. While I may learn better in a collaborative environment and am certainly intimidated by the prospect of my time on the grill, I also recognize that the real world is not a wholly collaborative environment, nor is it free from intimidation. In addition, I remember being told on the first day of orientation that law school requires students to be “self-learners.” To me this means it is my responsibility to recognize how I learn best. Personally, I don’t learn the law in class, I learn it sitting on my living room floor with a case of sugar-free Red Bull and a dog in my lap. I use my time in class to learn how to think like a lawyer — how to reason analytically, respond to arguments, and try to be a step ahead of the professor in his questioning. I do agree with the critics that the Socratic method can be an ineffective teaching technique, but only when it is poorly employed. When a professor plays “hide the ball” in a way that seems to suggest he thinks you’re clairvoyant, it makes students confused, frustrated, and disengaged. I owe my worst grade in law school to one of these professors. I would have been better off skipping class and studying my casebook. Instead I went to class, tried to keep up, and found myself crying in frustration on I-395 more often than I care to remember. But when it’s done well, the Socratic experience can be challenging, motivating, and even fun. And no, I’m not a masochist. So far I have had a few doctrinal professors who have made law school worth every penny. They are great because they employ this method of pedagogy and they do it well. These professors motivated me to work hard and challenged me to get it right. As a result, I’ve developed the confidence and analytical abilities to rise beyond my first-semester grades. I came to law school to become a lawyer, not just learn the law. To become a lawyer one must think like a lawyer. Thinking like a lawyer means having a strong grasp of analytical reasoning and the ability to make and defend an argument aloud and in public. To learn to think like a lawyer I need the Socratic method. To those professors who have taken the effort to drag me along in discussions on Vosberg v. Putney, Youngstown, and McNeil, your efforts have had benefits that extend well beyond my understanding of those cases. So, thanks for the good grillin’.


Ann Marie Pedersen is a third-year evening law student at the Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.

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