Why do I need to have Socratic questioning skills?
Your first instinct when a student asks a question may be to immediately answer them. After all, they’re coming to you to help them learn. But learning this way is only surface level; research has shown that students who have to think about their answers, talk through problems, and come to conclusions themselves learn more and remember more. In other words, telling a student how to solve a problem is not as beneficial as helping solve the problem for themselves.
So, what does that mean for you as a tutor? Think of it this way: the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most learning. Your goal in tutoring appointments should be to ask questions that get the tutee thinking and explaining.
So how do you use Socratic questioning?
Answers through Questions
Rather than telling a student what the answer should be, ask them questions that will help them figure it out. Here’s an example. Say you’re working with a student on a math problem, and they find themselves stuck at a particular step. Should you:
A) Ask them what would happen if they tried to solve it a particular way?
B) Ask them if they remember anything about solving this step of the equation from lecture?
C) Ask them if they have their notes with them?
D) Immediately provide the answer so that the student can move on.
If you answered A, B, or C, you’re correct. These questions allow you to guide the student to the right answer, and will get them thinking about what information they already know. Then, when they see a problem like this on homework or an exam, they’re more likely to be able to solve it themselves.
There are a lot of questions you can use in your tutoring appointments to help students through the process of figuring out things for themselves. However, it’s important not to overwhelm the tutee when using these questions. Tutees have varying levels of knowledge, and asking them a very difficult follow-up question may serve only to discourage them, rather than guide them to the right answer.
Types and Purposes of Questions
When asking questions, you should consider the type of question you are asking and its purpose. There are two major types of questions: open-ended and closed. Open-ended questions are generally broad and information-seeking. They require the responder to provide more than a word or two in their answer. Not only is the solicited answer longer than a few words, it is also independently generated rather than being a presented option or regulated response. In contrast, closed questions are typically more specific and can be answered in one or two words. They can be dichotomous, having only two ways of responding (such as yes or no, true or false, left or right, etc.), or they may have limited answers from a scripted selection of options. Generally, in your tutoring sessions you will want to avoid asking closed questions because your tutee will do most of the listening rather than most of the explaining (and learning).
The other element in asking questions is to know the purpose it serves. If you know why you are asking a question or what you want the tutee to take away from thinking through an answer, then you can easily and quickly formulate the question. While there may be many potential purposes or motives for asking questions, we’ll focus on introducing, clarifying, challenging, connecting, guiding, and fact checking. The table below shows potential purposes as well as examples you can use in sessions. Click on Fig 1.3 on the left to expand.
Asking Stronger Questions
Notice that most of the questions are open-ended. Recognizing your question’s purpose can help you reword a closed question and results in something more productive than a one word answer. For example, if you want to know if your tutee understands the concept you just went over, you may ask “Do you get it?” or “Does that make more sense now?” Your purpose is to know if they understand, so you could address that same purpose by asking “How would you explain the concept back to me know?” or “How would you describe it?” This keeps the tutee talking and engaged in the session.
You could also strengthen a question by asking a third type of question, a scaling question. A scaling question is actually a combination of closed and open-ended types. You begin with a more closed question asking the tutee to rank or rate something like their understanding or confidence on a scale of one to ten. Once the tutee responds, you follow up with open-ended questions asking them to explain why they ranked or rated themselves at that level. You can also ask what it would take for them to rank or rate themselves at the next level. The tutee’s response to the follow up questions allows you to see where they are at with the material, watch self-reported progress, and adjust your session plan to help the tutee “level up” their understanding or confidence.
Overall, leading sessions through asking questions will keep the tutee thinking, explaining, and involved in their learning. It will help tutees see how much they aleady know and guide them in learning more. Questions also turn sessions into tutee-dominant conversations rather than a tutor-dominant mini-lectures repeating the material from class. Approaching tutoring and subject material you already understand through asking questions may require more effort and feel slightly awkward at first, but it will become more natural as you use it in sessions.