We’re (not) all in this together: Grade-anxious students undermine the potential of Socratic seminars 

November 20, 2019 — by Allison Hartley

Students sit in a circle and are engaged in a serious discussion. Just as a classmate gets to the heart of making her ultimate point, someone from across the circle of chairs interrupts.

“Yeah, I think—” she begins. The interrupted girl stops talking, her eyes silently saying, “Are you really doing this?” Yet the rude interrupter takes the initial pause as a cue to proceed and launches into her point without an ounce of self-consciousness. 

In Socratic seminars, used in some history classes and many English classes, students are encouraged to work through ideas together by thinking aloud and posing questions to each other. To encourage participation, students are often graded on the quantity of contributions. Everybody tacitly knows to speak at least once, but the quality of responses is where the lines blur. 

To earn points, students often resort to reading prepared responses or repeating ideas, to some peers’ and teachers’ irritation. Even worse is what happens in seminars graded by quantity of contributions, not quality: Any difference in the value of each response holds little value. The idea becomes to just blurt something out — anything at any moment will do. 

Similarly, while some teachers warn against dominating the conversation or interrupting others, social courtesies too often fly out the window when students perceive that a major grade will be determined by a one-shot performance in a Socratic. 

The consequence is not just a few moments of awkward tension but a considerable hindrance to the purpose of the seminar — to share insights and deepen students’ understanding of what they’re studying. If a student abruptly diverts the conversation from a topic when ideas are still new and adapting to one another, that student has prematurely killed the ideas that are just beginning to take form. Without the thorough, organic discourse, the conversation is at risk of puttering through a series of topics, skimming only the surface and not getting to the meat of substantive discussion that could occur. 

To protect the sanctity of the discussion, the courtesy component of the graded Socratic should weigh more than the quality or quantity of contributions to the discussion. Not only would this discourage students from speaking for the sake of being heard, but students will be more conscious of how their contributions are fitting into the dynamic of the discussion and be more inclined to listen critically. 

After all, concerns for one’s grade seem to act as a better motivator than anything else. Ideally, though, students should not need to be driven by a desire to make a certain grade to participate fully in the Socratic seminar. This means ungraded or lightly graded Socratics might be the most effective method for promoting legitimate discussions. 

Ungraded or lightly graded Socratic seminars create a lower-stakes, reduced-stress environment where students can grapple with concepts without feeling self-conscious or tense as they hold their breath, ready to burst forth with an idea as soon as the speaker seems to be done. Rather than being perceived as a major assignment, low-stakes Socratics function as a longer class discussion forum without teacher guidance. 

Another good option to have Socratic seminars in which the entire class earns the same grade. This way, rather than competing for time to talk, students encourage each other to participate, creating an environment in which students support each other’s success. Confident speakers are incentivized to leave space for shyer students who have trouble asserting themselves during the discussion.

None of this would be necessary if students gain teachers’ trust through consistent, self-motivated participation. Students should see the Socratic seminars as an opportunity to listen to peers’ insight, not a make-or-break in-class assignment. Perhaps, then, the Socratic seminar will be an activity that most students look forward to — one that more closely resembles an organic, civil discussion than a poorly moderated primary debate.

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