How Common is the Socratic Method?

In a recent post, Orin expresses doubts about whether the “traditional” form of the Socratic method is still used in many law schools. If by “traditional form” he means something like what is portrayed in The Paper Chase, I agree that not many use it. Very few lawprofs are as obnoxious as the mythical Professor Kingsfield. But, in my experience of teaching at three different US law schools over the last six years, a large number of professors do still use the Socratic Method in the sense of spending the bulk of their class time cold-calling on students and asking them questions about legal doctrine. A recent report on The Faculty Lounge blog states that most entry-level candidates on the lawprof job market say that they intend to use “soft Socratic” method as their primary teaching tool, by which they mean that they “like to create a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom where students feel free to participate, but also be sufficiently rigorous in calling on students to ensure that everyone is prepared.” To the extent that it still involves large amounts of cold-calling (as in most cases it does), “soft” Socratic method has many of the same shortcomings as the “hard” version. I discuss some of those problems here and here.

I don’t claim that all law professors should completely abjure all aspects of SM; I use some elements of it myself. For example, I have students sign up to be “on call” a couple times during the semester, when I assign myself the right to call on them involuntarily. But I only devote a minority of the class time to this activity, and don’t use SM at all in classes with fewer than 30 or 35 people. The optimal level of SM probably varies from class to class and teacher to teacher. However, I do think that the method is still overused by many professors and that, overall, we would do well move to closer to the teaching methods used by social science and humanities professors in the US and law professors abroad.