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Retrieval Practice, Scaffolding, and the Socratic Method

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Barry Sharpe, Western Governors University

Key Statement: Revisit the Socratic method by using it to enact retrieval practice and scaffolding in courses and refresh thinking about applying recommendations from SOTL.

Keywords: Socratic Method, Retrieval Practice, Scaffolding


What is the first thing you think about when you consider the Socratic method? Is the Socratic method associated with memories of intimidation or feelings of insecurity? Is the Socratic method something imposed on you as a student but now as a teacher discarded as a relic of the past? I encourage you to reconsider the Socratic method through the lens of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. More specifically, I recommend thinking about the Socratic method as an example of how to support retrieval practice and scaffolding in courses.

Revisiting the Socratic Method

In The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook, Ward Farnsworth (2021) helpfully identifies and discusses several elements as central to the style of reasoning deployed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates “proceeds by question and answer” and his “questions identify the principle behind what his partners are saying” (Farnsworth, 2021, p. 26). Probably the most familiar embodiments of the Socratic method, these two elements work together to support dynamic interactions and set expectations about the active involvement of learners. Questions in this mode uncover the thinking behind student answers and support improved metacognition by making their thinking more visible and accessible.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Socrates also scrutinizes “the consistency of his partners” and utilizes “concrete examples to drive his reasoning” (Farnsworth, 2021, p. 26). Socrates tests interlocutors’ understanding by asking questions and using examples to prompt them to explain and clarify previous statements. Follow-up questions and new examples encourage students to revisit and reconsider answers. Such exchanges help them see for themselves that understanding requires more than the ability to recall a basic definition from a textbook. Attention to how examples illustrate or fail to illuminate the meaning of a term provides evidence of greater awareness as a learner.

Unlike the traditional way of seeing the Socratic method as something directed at students, Farnsworth focuses on the value of internalizing the Socratic method, that is, a method best performed on the self rather than others. As I see it, one of the goals of the Socratic method is to make our thinking more visible and accessible. Internalizing the Socratic method may result in something like an internal dialogue for students. For example, some of your students may have commented to you after taking an exam or writing a paper – “I could hear your voice in my head prompting me with questions and asking for examples and elaboration.” Now our goal may not be for students to hear our voices in their heads while taking exams or writing papers but reports like these do suggest students internalizing an approach to thinking, developing habits of mind (perhaps even curiosity and intellectual humility), and becoming more aware of what they are doing as learners.

Retrieval Practice and the Socratic Method

This brief overview of elements of the Socratic method suggests several connections with retrieval practice and scaffolding. Agarwal et al. (2021) define retrieval practice as “an active attempt by a student to recall or recognize, and then reconstruct, their memory of knowledge during initial learning. The emphasis is on the process of practicing retrieval (the active attempt) that shapes learning, not tests” (p. 1412). When students think they know course material because they have collected reams and reams of information, retrieval practice, much like Socratic questioning, forces students to stop, think, reflect, and reconsider. It meets students where they are (e.g., overwhelmed with information), encourages effortful struggle associated with learning (e.g., presents a desirable difficulty), and offers the discipline of practice (or, perhaps, the practice of discipline). The goal of retrieval practice, getting information out, reflects the goal of so many of Socrates’s questions, to make his interlocutors give an account of and become more aware of their thinking.

Scaffolding and the Socratic Method

Often associated with differentiated instruction and meeting students where they are or providing guided practice (e.g., “I do, We do, You do”), I think that in the context of the Socratic method it is useful to think about scaffolding as structuring regular feedback with multiple opportunities for self-reflection (Darby & Lang, 2019). If we accept that the Socratic method crucially involves the movement back and forth between questions and answers, I see this aspect of the Socratic method as a useful example of scaffolding. When faculty chunk up material, assist students as they move through Bloom’s taxonomy, model approaches to help students get started and maintain momentum, make the student an active participant in developing and reflecting on knowledge, they are incorporating key elements of some of the most important recommendations from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. All these techniques help students build or generate knowledge. They also reflect key aspects of the Socratic method and suggest that reflection on common recommendations from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning may deepen appreciation for and, perhaps, encourage experimentation with the Socratic method.

Retrieval Practice, Scaffolding, and the Socratic Method

Retrieval practice, getting information out, prompts students to reflect more on what they do and do not know. Thinking about the sequence of questions prompts faculty to reflect more on how to help students get the most out of retrieval practice. Moving from a question about a definition to one about an example to one about another example and then back to a question about the original definition models the Socratic method, promotes retrieval practice, and provides effective scaffolding for learning. Repetition of and variation on this general-to-specific-to-general approach to questions also encourages students to think in a particular way and practice internalizing the Socratic method.

Consider a concept from your course that would be a candidate for this approach. Think about a likely sequence of questions that would prepare students for increasingly challenging, more conceptual questions. Ask students for a definition and encourage them to do so without looking at notes. Suggest an example and ask students to assess the example and provide additional examples. Return to the definition and puzzle through different ways of thinking about the concept and making connections with other concepts in the course.

With scaffolding in place (definition, examples, and connections), you can consider different ways of prompting students to internalize the Socratic method. Post a practice question on the screen with the correct answer already provided. Instead of the answer concluding the inquiry, the answer now begins the inquiry. Ask students to consider why an answer choice is correct or incorrect. Respond with follow-up questions designed to prompt students to clarify responses. Revise the question or answer choices and start the process over again. Begin with a question without answer choices or answer choices without a question. Ask students to craft their own follow-up questions. There are innumerable ways to track the general movement of the Socratic method and help students make their thinking more visible and accessible. Thinking about the Socratic method as a way to enact retrieval practice and scaffolding in our courses may help faculty rediscover the Socratic method and refresh thinking about how to apply recommendations from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Discussion Questions

  1. Under what conditions do you think the Socratic method best supports student learning?

  2. How might thinking about points of contact between the Socratic method and retrieval practice/scaffolding support reflection on instructional practices?

  3. What other fruitful points of contact do you see between the Socratic method and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning?


Agarwal, P. K., Nunes, L. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2021). Retrieval practice consistently

benefits student learning: A systematic review of applied research in schools

and classrooms. Educational Psychology Review, 33, 1409–1453.

Darby, F. & Lang, J. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in

online classes. Jossey-Bass.

Farnsworth, W. (2021). The Socratic method: A practitioner’s handbook. Godine.

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Howard Aldrich
Howard Aldrich
2023. jan. 27.

Great suggestions & I would add that to make this method work during a live class session, it is crucial that students come to class prepared. This means giving them an incentive to do the reading, watch the video, do the field work, and whatever else it takes to prime them for a higher-order Bloom's taxonomy experience during class. They can't participate if they don't have the foundation prepared a priori.

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