Office Hours and the Socratic Method

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Many times, students come to office hours wanting to know the answer to one question: is my paper good enough?

There are many ways to answer that question, but this is sometimes harder for students to see than we think. Students tend to see their grades and their writing as black or white, as good or bad. They tend to judge their work in this binary and often fail to ask questions that could lead them to new thoughts and ideas, opening their writing up further.

That’s where the professor, and the Socratic Method, come in. Introduced in Plato’s Theaetetus, the Socratic Method works to engage participants in a dialogue, drawing out thoughts, and prompting students to consider why they’ve made the choices they have or what possible changes they could make. Using it de-emphasizes this “good” or “bad” binary, reframing student work and grounding the revision process in questions.  

When frazzled students arrive at my office with a stack of papers near the end of the semester, I start by just talking to them, slowing down and giving them a few minutes of intake: How are you doing? How has the semester been going for you so far? What brings you in? Giving students the space and time to de-compress is the first part of the process, and it allows them to relax and to reflect on their journey through the course thus far, where they are currently, or what they are struggling with at the moment.

When it comes to the stack of papers, we don’t start reading right away. Instead, I ask the student specific questions about their work: Where do you think the tension is slacking? As a reader, where are you bored? What do you think the paper is struggling to achieve right now? Is there a reason why you’ve organized it the way you have? Asking these questions allows students to critically but honestly reflect on their own work by stepping back and explaining it to someone else. Suddenly, they may realize that they hadn’t organized their work in any particular way at all, or that they know they’ve been bothered by the thesis the whole time, that it’s just not quite clear enough.

Students know more than they give themselves credit for, and employing the Socratic Method offers them a chance to reach these realizations, and to make decisions about their writing on their own. This method empowers students by giving them the questions they may already know the answers to, and giving them an audience as they make their way toward new discoveries in their writing.

About the Author
Annalise Mabe is currently a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida where she teaches nonfiction and professional writing.