Last week we explored some ways that law school is different than undergrad. In that post, I explained that what happens in the law school classroom can be different than a new student’s previous learning experiences. Today, I want to talk more about Socratic Method, one of the most common (and most feared!) approaches to teaching in law school.
So what is so different about Socratic Method? In most undergraduate classes, here’s what happens: The professor stands in front of the class and lectures. He may use powerpoint slides to keep the lecture focused and provide important information for students, or maybe he writes ideas on a blackboard or whiteboard. Most students sit in their seats and take notes, either by hand or on a computer. A few students may be texting, talking to a classmate, or reading the school newspaper. If a student has a question, she may raise her hand to get the professor’s attention. In most classes, students don’t face much pressure to absorb assigned readings before coming to class; the classroom is not a stressful environment until it’s time to take an exam.
This type of description does not apply to most law school classes. Instead of lecturing, the law professor often will use Socratic Method. Students complete assigned readings before coming to each class. Once class begins, the law professor asks students questions about the law, and the students answer. Often, the professor asks students to apply what they have learned from one case to a new hypothetical situation. This question and answer process creates a dialogue about the law at issue in that particular class. So why is this approach so scary and stressful for law students?
First, many professors who use Socratic Method “cold call” on students. A cold call is where the student does not know in advance that she will be on the hot seat. The professor calls on students in a random order, and you must be prepared to answer any question if your name is called. This can be stressful for students who are shy and do not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. If you didn’t understand that day’s reading assignment, you may particularly dread being called on by the professor. On the flip side, being called on can build your confidence as you learn to articulate your understanding of the law, and it can help you to develop strategies to manage your fear of public speaking. It also makes students feel more accountable for the reading, as you never know when you may be called on and need to come to class prepared.
Second, Socratic Method does not necessarily create bright-line answers to legal questions. A professor who uses Socratic Method may not resolve legal issues or tell students what the “right answer” is at the end of class. In fact, sometimes students feel more confused by the class dialogue than they did going into class that day. Although students may find this approach frustrating, it helps them to understand that the answers to legal questions often depend on specific factual circumstances. As you continue to process the course materials and think about what was discussed during class, you will begin to synthesize that information and create your own understanding of the law.
Third, some students feel humiliated if they don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. There is nothing worse than that feeling of dread and humiliation when you are called upon and don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. You may be accused of not doing the reading, or the professor may be able to talk you in circles because you don’t have confidence in your answers. Every law student has had those days when, even if she has read the assigned reading three or four times, she just doesn’t quite understand the material yet. Having the professor call on you can be stressful in those circumstances.
Fourth, students often don’t know how to take good notes in classes that use Socratic Method. How do you keep from creating a transcript of what happens in class and instead focus on distilling the important information out of a class discussion? This is something that is difficult to do at first, and the uncertainty can leave students either writing way too much down or missing important information from class.
Law students can find classes taught by Socratic Method stressful, but there are things that you can do to reduce the stress and get the most out of this type of learning experience. Stay tuned over the next several weeks as I talk more about this topic and other topics for new and returning law students!