The Socratic Method: Are We Pimping Students?

by Amber Grady, PharmD

The Socratic method is a long-standing and well-known method of teaching students using repeated questioning to think critically. It is a well-established teaching method in the health sciences, but much of the information supporting it is anecdotal. Several reviews of critical thinking have promoted the use of questions as learning tools but caution educators that they are only effective if used correctly.1,2,3

Recently, there has been some discussion on the Socratic method and its relationship to “pimping”. As observed by Oh et al., pimping tends to generate fear and stress in students.4 Overall the literature does support the use of questions as a teaching tool, but how can we be sure that we are asking effective questions that engage students in learning instead of only inspiring fear and anxiety?

Socratic Questioning or Pimping?

Here are a few select similarities and differences in these methods:

Socratic Method 2,4 “Pimping”1, 4
Purpose
  • Develop new conceptual relationships
  • Stimulate original thoughts
  • Teach
  • Affirm hierarchical order
  • Evaluate students
  • Teach
Types of Questions
  • Probing
  • Open-ended
  • Factual

Student Perceptions

As a recent graduate and current pharmacy practice resident, I am familiar with the fear and anxiety that accompanies questioning from a teacher or preceptor.  It is a difficult thing to admit when there are gaps in your knowledge, but it is important to recognize these gaps to continue learning. The Socratic method often identifies these gaps and is useful in helping students determine areas they need to focus on. Despite knowing the benefits of this method, I had many preceptors whom I dreaded asking questions to because I knew they would answer my question with questions of their own which could sometimes make me feel inadequate or unsure of myself. I agree with the observation by Oh et al. that fear and stress can spur students to seek out answers, but I also feel that, at times, it can deter students from asking questions.4

Despite this, I will admit that many of my favorite preceptors utilized the Socratic method and that I did learn a lot through its use. These preceptors presented questions in a way that encouraged me to think about what I knew and to extrapolate that information to a given situation. I think that for me this method of questioning led me to consider the information I learned more critically and not to simply reproduce information that I was taught.

Alternatively, I had classmates that hated this method of teaching and they would freeze up when questioned. They would be unable to answer questions even if it was a topic in which they were fluent. Other responses can range from things such as avoidance of eye contact, avoiding answering the question, or even hostility.2,5   Therefore,when utilizing Socratic method, it is important to consider the learner and what style works for them.

Improving Student Perceptions

Here are several ways to make the Socratic method feel less like pimping:

  • Ask questions with a purpose

In their recent review of the Socratic method, Oyler et al. identified purposeless questions as one of the major limitations of this method. It is important that questions are targeted, directed and provide students with a sense of closure and resolution.3  As a student, I wanted to feel that the questions led to a conclusion that was relevant and useful.

  • Encourage students that it is okay not to have all the answers

Tofade et al. provided several “best practices” where they highlight psychological safety. 2 It is important that students do not feel judged or discouraged when they do not know the answer. As a student, my goal was always to learn, and I hated feeling inferior because I did not know the correct answer.

  • Utilize in a one-on-one or small-group environment

Students’ anxiety and embarrassment can be compounded by having an audience. It can sometimes be even more embarrassing to admit that you do not know the correct answer in front of a large group of people. Try engaging your students with questioning in private or in small group settings.2,3

The Socratic method can be an effective learning tool for students if utilized correctly. When used in ways that allow students to feel safe and secure in answering the questions, this method can encourage students to critically evaluate information and formulate conclusions.

Acknowledgements
Elizabeth Lafitte, PharmD, BCPS

References

  1. Carlson E. Medical Pimping Versus the Socratic Method of Teaching. Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. 2017;75(1):3-5. doi:10.1016/j.joms.2016.09.019.
  2. Tofade T, Elsner J, Haines S. Best Practice Strategies for Effective Use of Questions as a Teaching Tool. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2013;77(7):155. doi:10.5688/ajpe777155.
  3. Oyler D, Romanelli F. The Fact of Ignorance Revisiting the Socratic Method as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2014;78(7):144. doi:10.5688/ajpe787144.
  4. Oh R, Reamy B. The Socratic Method and Pimping: Optimizing the Use of Stress and Fear in Instruction. Virtual Mentor. 2014;16(3):182-186. doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2014.16.03.medu2-1403.
  5. Detsky A. The art of pimping. JAMA. 2009;301(13):1379–1381.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 12.50.08 PMAmber Grady is a pharmacy resident at the University Health Shreveport. Educational scholarship interests include learning styles and assessment tools. In her free time, Amber enjoys playing video games, exploring new cities, and listening to music.


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

  1. I think this is an excellent topic. Educators working with students in experiential settings should consider the purpose of the questions/work they are directing to students. Our main goal should always be to help the student learn in the best way for them. Thank you for the post!

    Like

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