Professors vary on the way they use the Socratic method, but the basic formula is that the professor chooses one student and asks that person several questions, whenever possible not giving away the answer but letting the student come to it on his or her own. The most effective way to prepare is to read the material carefully, have some form of notes or highlighting as a guide, and not be afraid to make mistakes.
Professors may choose one student for each case, one for each class period, or several students for a long case. Some professors use “cold calling,” and others go in alphabetical order or down the rows. If the student repeatedly fails to understand the question or can’t find a satisfactory answer, the professor may move on, but if a student has not read the case at all the best response is to simply say, “I’m not prepared today.” The professor will not be impressed, but it does save embarrassment.
How to Read Cases for the Socratic Method
Some professors will ask specific questions such as, “what is the issue of this case?” or “what is the holding?” The easiest way to prepare for this sort of course is to have some form of a brief available for each case, whether highlighted in the book or written out. Some professors are more abstract, and will say, “tell us about this case.” The facts, issue, and holding are still good to know, but if the professor insists that a student explain in his or her own words what’s important about the case, it is also helpful to have a few general notes.
For example, Marbury v. Madison is known as the case that established judicial review. It would be a good idea to say that upfront. Cases may stand for broader propositions than their holding, or context may be important. After a few days with a professor, it will be easy to tell what they’re looking for, but to start it never hurts after reading a case to ask, “what was the point of that, anyway?” This will also help narrow thoughts for a later outline.
Finally, some professors want to know what students think, or will try to bridge the gap between cases. It’s always smart to pay attention to notes or questions in the casebook. If there is time, answering the questions mentally can be useful – the professor may ask them point blank. More likely, he or she will ask if the student thinks the case is rightly decided. It’s good to be able to back the answer up with other case law, principles, or something in the Constitution or a statute.
How to Benefit from a Class Using the Socratic Method
When someone else is “on the spot,” other students may be tempted to let their minds wander. However, professors tend to ask other students to “help,” or to ask the next student whether their case jibes with what the previous student said. Being off the hook is also a good time to take notes and focus on what the professor is asking.
Often, law school exams focus almost exclusively on what was covered in class. Even if reading notes already a cover a topic, it’s a good idea to make note of what was covered in class. Professors may also point out bright line rules, important legal debates, or certain scholars’ opinions in the casebook. These could easily show up on an exam.
When being questioned, it’s still smart to take shorthand notes of some kind, but if a professor is particularly hardball with the Socratic method, it can be easier just to focus on the questions and finding the answer for the next one. The best trick can be finding a classmate early on who seems to be typing a lot of notes in class, and then ask to trade when each student has his or her turn. This also is a good way to find possible study partners.