The Socratic Method Delivers, Even in the BizCom Classroom


Using the Socratic method—a cooperative dialog in which the instructor asks questions to draw out students’ ideas and thereby fosters critical thinking—is common in the humanities and legal studies. But can it play a part in the business communication classroom?

Absolutely. Because unless students think critically about the material instructors present, they won’t retain it. The model of “the sage on the stage” just doesn’t cut it with today’s learners. However, when students are included in discussions with the purpose of helping them arrive at answers on their own, they are more likely to internalize the lesson and ultimately deliver improved work. Such questioning, which is the hallmark of the Socratic method, also encourages students to do assigned readings and interact with the text because they know they’ll be held accountable during class discussions.

Taking this on is easier said than done. Many students are reticent to respond to queries, afraid to appear foolish or unprepared. However, applying ground rules before using this age-old pedagogic tool can encourage self-directed learning. Follow these pointers when topics lend themselves to the Socratic method.

  1. Prepare students. Explain what the Socratic method is, why and when it will be used, and how it benefits learning.
  2. Allow reference materials. Encourage students to check their textbooks or notes while questioning them.
  3. Ban hand raising. Calling on students is a critical component of the Socratic method. Do, however, keep track of who has responded on so no student feels singled out.
  4. Walk the room. As questions are posed, circulate throughout the classroom. This helps keep students on task while simultaneously engaging them.
  5. Permit silence. Students may take some time to respond, so don’t immediately go to another if the first is scrambling. Move on only when the student hasn’t found the answer after 20 seconds.
  6. Correct factual inaccuracies. It is not so that “there are no wrong answers.” Students must be told when they have made an untrue statement.

Once these ground rules are established, instructors can examine their curriculum to find the best times to use the Socratic method. For example, the business communication classroom is the perfect platform to discuss ethical matters facing businesses. (Look in the BizComBuzz News You Can Use tab for situations and case studies to discuss business ethics with students.) After the discussion, ask your students to critically analyze the case in a memo or short report.

Another way to integrate the Socratic method into the business communication classroom is to use it when introducing a new unit or writing strategy (i.e., persuasive writing, delivering routine or bad news, etc.) When students arrive at the reasons behind these writing strategies, they will better grasp the new genre. Afterwards ask them to work on an exercise that tests their knowledge about the topic they’ve just discussed.

The beauty of this method is that it can be successfully implemented in person or online. One thing is certain—Socrates was definitely onto something.

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