Using the Socratic Method in Writing Instruction
I recently sat down and spoke with a (imaginary) high school student and teacher about what makes for useful feedback on a paper. This is what they (would have) told me (if they were real people).
Me: Are all methods of teacher feedback equally useful?
Teacher & Student: No.
Me: What is something that would make one method of feedback more helpful than another?
Student: Tone, I suppose. I don’t really like getting yelled at or made to feel like I’m stupid when I turn something in. So feedback that made me feel like I was on the right track, but gave direction on how I could make it better.
Me: What kind of direction? Do you want the teacher to tell you what to write or how to fix what you’ve written?
Student: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, if I’ve done something demonstrably wrong—like missed punctuation or messed up subject-verb agreement—it’s pretty helpful to just be shown the correction so I can make it.
Me: But not always?
Student: No. I mean, I guess it would be easier for the teacher just to tell me what to write, but if they wanted to write the paper themselves, they probably would have already done that. So, assuming they aren’t just going to tell me exactly what to write, and write it for me, and give me an A, and admit me to Harvard, and give me a seven figure salary for being awesome, I guess what I want is to be shown where my writing isn’t strong, why it isn’t strong, and how to go about fixing it this time and in the future.
Me: So, it would be more helpful to you to be encouraged and challenged at the same time?
Student: I think so. Yes.
Me: What kind of challenges are helpful to you?
Student: Well, I had a teacher once who had one approach when he wanted us to dig deeper into something or force us to better defend a position we were taking or an assertion we were making and it was just this. He’d say, “Think about this a little bit more.”
That was not helpful at all. I knew that he thought there was something missing, but I had no idea if he thought I was off-base, or was missing some evidence, or had failed to state my conclusion after presenting my facts. I’d spend so much time guessing what he wanted and just as often as not I’d end up fixing the wrong thing.
What would have been more helpful is if he’d asked us direct questions about what we’d written. If he’d said things like, “What evidence do you have to support this claim,” or “You say here that ‘people have said...’ Which people? Who said that? Do they have evidence to support these claims?” You know, direct questions that lead me down the right path.
Me: That’s interesting. Does that hold with your experience as well? Is there a reason that type of feedback isn’t given more often?
Teacher: It does. And ideally, I would like to give that kind of prompting to each paper I read, but to answer your question—it’s time. Giving that kind of feedback on every paper takes a ton of time. I teach eight classes a day, and each has twenty to thirty students.
I start out grading papers with the intention of giving this kind of feedback, but after five or six papers, not only am I getting tired, but I’m also seeing the same mistakes over and over. Eventually, the feedback becomes more rote.
I wish this wasn’t true, but it is.
Me: Let me show you this. It’s a series of feedback from WriteLab where this exact type of feedback is given to a student automatically.
Would this be helpful?
Student: YES! This is what I was talking about. I totally get what the teacher wants me to do. That would be very helpful.
Teacher: And it does this automatically? A student uploads their paper—or I upload it—and WriteLab gives the feedback automatically? Yes. That would be helpful. It would save me time and let me give the students feedback on their work after they’ve addressed the feedback that they were given on these earlier drafts.
A Quick Breakdown of WriteLab’s Socratic-Based Feedback
1. Evidence and claims.
Original sentence: “This is true of students designated as ‘remedial,’ and their struggles lead many to never complete their college degree.”
WriteLab’s Logic feedback: “What evidence would verify your claim that this is true? What counter-example(s) might falsify your claim?”
Explanation: This is a perfect way for students to think critically about how they can support their largest claims. It also gets them thinking about possible counter-arguments.
2. Meaningful details.
Original sentence: “Author and educator Mike Rose seamlessly blends personal experience, stories of students, and a profound analysis of academia in Lives on the Boundary—giving readers a vivid portrait of rifts and dilemmas in America’s education system.”
WriteLab’s Logic feedback: “How does author and educator Mike Rose blend personal experience?”
Explanation: Students need help understanding which details count, and where to give them. Even if they don’t add them to this particular sentence, they know to consider explaining this important point more.
Original sentence: “Rose goes on to explain that as many students attempt to situate themselves in the American education system they face cultural and assessment barriers that leave students ‘sitting on the threatening boundaries of the classroom’”(8).
WriteLab’s Logic feedback: “You use succinct and engaging verbs here. Excellent job!”
Explanation: The power of praise can go a long way in inspiring students to work hard on their drafts.
4. Agency and intention.
Original sentence: "So how can the education process be fixed so that all students have the ability to succeed?"
WriteLab’s Clarity feedback: “Who can fix the education process so that all students have the ability to succeed?”
Explanation: Identifying and explaining agency in argumentative writing is incredibly important for young writers. It increases their critial thinking, analysis, and contextualizatin skills.
How the Socratic Method Inspired WriteLab’s CEO
In a Forbes’ Under 30 Podcast, Matthew Ramirez explains how WriteLab approaches this type of feedback:
“I’ve always found the most effective teachers to be the ones that listen carefully...and we’ve tried to develop software that will ask you questions without being too presumptive. So the Socratic Method in there is saying, “If you make a claim” (like a certain policy reduces crime) we want to ask you the question that’s most appropriate for the claim that you’ve made.” So we will ask you something like, “To what extent does that policy reduce crime?” We want to prompt you to be more mindful about your writing. To gather more data, more evidence, for your claims. But also to consider little things. Little ways of praising. Little parts of emphasis.”
Check out the full podcast: Matthew Ramirez Makes The Tough Job Of Teaching Writing Easier
WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to students' prose as they draft, revise, and polish their writing.