5 Steps to a Successful Socratic Seminar

As a gifted intervention specialist, I began experimenting with Socratic seminars to engage my students more deeply with the novels we were reading. Initially, I struggled with whether I was facilitating correctly—was I jumping in too much or not enough? Should my questions be harder? What if everyone agreed? After reading a book on Socratic seminars and exploring various resources, I finally feel confident in my approach.

Here are five steps that will help you have a successful Socratic seminar.

Using socratic seminar in the classroom

Step 1: Choose a Text

Selecting the Right Text

The purpose of Socratic seminars is to use evidence to support interpretations of a text. If you give your students too large of a text, they won’t be able to read it closely enough to feel comfortable using it for support. Many resources advise against using a novel for this reason.

Using a Novel

That being said, I have used Socratic seminars as a culmination to a novel study with great results. Since we had already studied the novel as a class, the students were comfortable and knowledgeable about the text.

Starting with Poetry

If you’re nervous about using a novel, poetry is a great way to start. Poems offer enough variety in interpretation to have a meaningful discussion without being overwhelming.

Step 2: Let Students Prepare

Importance of Preparation

Socratic Seminars are based on critical thinking, and when students are put on the spot, they can’t delve as deeply as they would like into a given topic. I recommend giving students at least 24 hours to prepare for a Socratic seminar.

Lessons Learned

The first time I used one, I didn’t tell the students what they would be discussing. The resulting seminar was a flop, as students spent more time flipping through the book searching for “that one part” than actually discussing. The best discussions occur when students feel confident, and allowing them to prepare is key.

Encouraging Annotation

Encourage students to annotate the text and use Post-Its throughout their novel. The more evidence they have, the more in-depth their discussion will be.

SVG Image Map Example

Step 3: Give Students Questions

Providing Questions in Advance

I like to give my students a handout with questions at least one day in advance. Initially, I gave a litany of questions and made sure to focus on each one during the discussion. However, this approach didn’t work as well.

Fewer, More Focused Questions

Now, I give the students 4-6 questions. I usually assign 2-3 questions that are based closely on the text and that would be rather easy for the students to prove (ex. “Classify the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as good or evil.”) The next 2-3 questions I use to focus on deeper, more philosophical questions (ex. “In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund would be considered an antagonist. Agree or disagree.”)

When I start the discussion, I have the students begin by sharing their answers to one or all of the first questions. They often feel more confident sharing their answers to these questions, and by building their confidence, they are more willing to share their answers to the tougher questions when I introduce those later. Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for an example of some questions I used for a Socratic seminar on The Westing Game.

Step 4: Set Up Inner and Outer Circles

Format of Socratic Seminars

The basic format to a Socratic seminar is having students divided into two groups and sitting in two circles – an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner circle represents the speakers. These are the students who discuss the questions. The outer circle students are the recorders. These people silently record notes on the inner circle speakers. After a certain amount of time, both circles switch so that all students have had a chance being in each circle.

Benefits of This Set-Up

This setup allows more students to participate and makes them more willing to jump into the discussion. The outer circle recording observations helps speakers be more conscious of their participation.

Step 5: Don’t Jump In

Teacher’s Role

Teachers love to explain things – it’s why we’re in this profession in the first place! When your students are discussing an issue, sometimes they miss an important detail or come to an illogical conclusion. Just let that happen. As hard as it may be to sit there and listen as they pass over an important symbol or fail to question another classmate’s self-contradiction, you have to remember that you are merely a facilitator. Your role is to (1) introduce new questions when the discussion starts to lag and (2) let students know when to wrap up their discussion. Your role is NOT to add your own thoughts – this is a mainly student-led method.

Practice Makes Perfect

In the end, Socratic seminars take practice. Don’t worry if the first time you use it, you feel like it didn’t go as you imagined. It is a process for both you and your students. The more times you use one, the more confident students will feel with asking each other questions, using evidence to support their points, and disagreeing with each other. Over time you will see your students grow not just as academics but as critical thinkers, too.


Socratic seminars are a valuable instructional tool that requires investment in preparation and teaching students how to participate. By following these steps, you can run a successful Socratic seminar in your classroom.

Our Guest Expert

Erin Vanek is a gifted intervention specialist with 10 years of experience in the education world. She has done everything from tutoring middle-school students in Spanish to teaching AP English to seniors. No matter what she is teaching, she is always looking for creative ways to make her lessons meaningful to her students. Follow her blog, Creative Teacher’s Classroom, for ideas on how to teach outside the box! Also, check out her store on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Socratic Seminars: Q/A for First-Time Teachers

  • Q: What is a Socratic seminar?
    • A: A Socratic seminar is a student-led discussion that encourages critical thinking, deep analysis, and evidence-based dialogue about a text.
  • Q: How do I choose a text for a Socratic seminar?
    • A: Select a text that is rich in ideas and open to interpretation. Shorter texts or poems are great for beginners, but novels can be used if students are familiar with the content.
  • Q: How should I prepare my students for a Socratic seminar?
    • A: Give students at least 24 hours to prepare. Provide them with questions in advance and encourage them to annotate the text and gather evidence to support their ideas.
  • Q: What type of questions should I ask in a Socratic seminar?
    • A: Start with 4-6 questions. Then include a mix of straightforward, text-based questions and deeper, more philosophical questions to stimulate discussion.
  • Q: How do I set up the classroom for a Socratic seminar?
    • A: Arrange students in two circles: an inner circle of speakers and an outer circle of note-takers. After a set time, switch roles so all students participate.
  • Q: What is my role as a teacher during a Socratic seminar?
    • A: Your role is to facilitate, not dominate, the discussion. Introduce new questions if the discussion lags and signal when it’s time to wrap up, but avoid adding your own thoughts.
  • Q: How do I handle students who are shy or reluctant to participate?
    • A: Building confidence is key. Start with simpler questions and encourage everyone to share their thoughts. Over time, students will become more comfortable with the format.
  • Q: How often should I conduct Socratic seminars?
    • A: It depends on your curriculum and students’ needs. Start with a few seminars per semester and adjust based on their effectiveness and students’ engagement.
  • Q: What are the benefits of using Socratic seminars in the classroom?
    • A: Socratic seminars foster critical thinking, improve communication skills, and encourage students to support their ideas with evidence. They also promote a deeper understanding of the text and enhance student engagement.
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