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What Is the Socratic Method?

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Socrates
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If you’ve been researching law schools, you may be wondering what the Socratic Method is all about.

What Is the Socratic Method?

Still popular in legal classrooms today, the Socratic Method is named after Greek philosopher Socrates, who taught students by asking question after question, seeking to expose contradictions in the students’ thoughts and ideas to then guide them to arrive at a solid, tenable conclusion. The principle underlying the Socratic Method is that students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, finding holes in their own theories and then patching them up.

This often rapid-fire exchange takes place in front of the entire class, so students get practice thinking and making arguments on their feet and also speaking in front of large groups. Although some law students find the process intimidating or humiliating—a la John Houseman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Paper Chase—when done correctly by a great professor, the Socratic Method can actually produce a lively, engaging, and intellectual classroom atmosphere.

Handling the Hot Seat

First-year law students should take comfort in the fact that everyone will get his or her turn on the hot seat—professors often simply choose a student at random instead of waiting for raised hands. And although the first time is difficult for everyone, after a while, you may actually find the process exhilarating as you single-handedly bring your class to the single nugget of information the professor was driving at. You’re unlikely to forget the first time you successfully played the Socratic game; most lawyers can probably still tell you about their shining Socratic Method moment.

So what can you do when your law school professor fires that first Socratic question at you?

Take a deep breath, remain calm, stay focused on the question, and say only what you need to get your point across. Sounds easy, right? It is. In theory.

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