The Ultimate Guide to Socratic Seminars

The Ultimate guide to class discussions


Public speaking

According to Doctor Glenn Croston, public speaking is the greatest fear in the world1 – even above death. Combine this fact with a confusing topic and a rigorous grading scale and it’s no wonder why class discussions are so stressful!
Regardless of the initial intimidation that comes with debating amongst a group, though, there are many ways to make surviving (and even excelling) in a peer conversation manageable. Here are the most important things to remember during a class discussion:





1. Find Evidence

Often times the hardest part of participating in a discussion stems from a lack of “ideas,” or at least of pre-planned ones. The truth is, coming up with an eloquent comment in the moment can be extremely challenging, and can even distract you from listening to others. The best way to avoid a mind of blank thoughts is to make sure you have something to say beforehand: quotes, page numbers, notes, even sample paragraphs.
Remember, anything you can come up with in a no-stress environment will cut down on the anxiety you feel when all eyes are on you.


2. Know Your Strongest Points

In football, a quarterback has many receivers, but there are always one or two he can trust to make the catch. The same principal applies to discussions – it is important to have an array of comments planned, but just as necessary is to know which ones are the strongest. After preparing for the questions/topics you will be talking about, take a minute to go back and star the points you believe to be the best. Then, when the discussion hits, you will know how to prioritize your ideas to make sure your leading thoughts are heard.

Obama Speaks at Henry Ford by Austen Hufford




3. Talk Slowly

We’ve all sat through an uncomfortable session where someone tries to spew as many words out of their mouth as they can in a short period of time. This tactic makes both the speaker and audience anxious, and does not communicate that the person knows what they are talking about. Instead of speaking as much as possible, focus on clarity: slow down, take a breath, and talk to the crowd like you would in a normal conversation. This will calm your nerves, making you seem more confident and intelligent. In addition, a moderate pace allows you to process what you are actually saying, which improves the precision of your diction.


4. Remember the Purpose

So often, students lose sight of what they want to say, leading themselves into redundant phrases and using many filler words (“um” “like” “you know?” “or whatever…”).  This is a common trap, but can be easily avoided – just continuously think about what you are trying to say. Focus less on finding the perfect words and more on getting your point across. People understand that fluent speaking is hard when put on the spot, and both teachers and peers would happily listen to a crude but clear point over a five minute rant about nothing.


5. Look at Other People

This might seem counter-intuitive, as looking at others while talking to a group creates apprehension; however, this tactic can actually increase familiarity and make you feel more confident. When speaking, pick individual people to make eye contact with, and go from person to person as you make your point. Don’t stare people down, just give a short glance, and make your peers feel that you are talking to them alone. Making an effort to connect like this will be well received by the students you choose to talk to specifically, and will cause the general audience to show increased interest towards what you are saying. It is important to keep in mind that discussions are designed to bolster the sharing of ideas between people, not to recite facts into space.


6. Disagree With Others’ Points

The most interesting and exciting part of a conversation comes when two speakers disagree with each other. This is what school discussions are actually about – not a horde of disinterested students who all share a mind, but a variety of scholars who think what they have to say is important for others to hear. If you disagree with a another’s point, say so, and pose your own side to the argument. As long as this is done respectfully, it will energize the discussion and serve as proof that you know what you are talking about.


Note: In graded discussions, clashing thoughts stand out (in a good way). Be confident!

Hey Listen! by Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY 2.0




7. Balance Participation

It can be tempting to jump into a discussion anytime you have a good point to make, or to sit out completely and let others do all the talking.  However, this is not the best way to handle seminars in school. Both out of respect for the class and from a grading standpoint, having a balance of speaking and listening is key. Here is one example of a good way to budget a 30-minute discussion:

  • Make a comment within first 3 minutes
  • Based on text evidence if possible
  • Listen for 5-7 minutes
  • Make a second comment/pose a question
  • Listen for 8-10 minutes
  • Make a third comment/question
  • Make 1-2 comments in last 10 minutes of discussion
  • Make last point the strongest

In this example, a student starts off strong with a fast initial comment, then backs off and lets the conversation get moving. Later, he or she inputs more information, or possibly asks a question.After the first two instances of speaking, precision becomes more important – you must now wait until you have an opportunity to make a strong point before speaking again. Finally, as less classmates feel the need to speak, the last minutes offer ample opportunities for the student to make a final, strong comment. Using a format similar to this allows you to speak as much as you need to, but without stepping on everyone’s toes in the process. Of course, every discussion is different, whether in length or number of participants, so be sure to adapt your strategies to the situation at hand.


8. Write Down Ideas

During the times you are not speaking, focus on preparing yourself for the next time you talk – jot down things you want to say, and take notes on what others have mentioned so you avoid repeating them. Again, talking in front of a class is challenging, so take the time you have to yourself to make it easier to speak in a few minutes. And if that alone does not persuade you to make note of your thoughts, know that teachers are very impressed by students who are active in discussion, which translates to a better grade for you.


True, discussions will always be a source of anxiety. True, there is no perfect way to conduct yourself while speaking. However, these tips will make the time you spend preparing for and participating in conversations efficient and much more profitable. In all areas before and during discussions, steps can be taken to ensure the best possible outcome. So, next time you hear the words “socratic seminar” or “graded discussion,” forget the groaning and instead have confidence that you can be a dynamic part of whatever is being said in the classroom.

Works Cited

Croston, Glenn. “The Thing We Fear More Than Death.” Psychology Today. N.p., 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.

Andy Salmon

Andy is currently studying engineering at the University of Minnesota. He graduated in the top 1% of his class and received the full-ride Evans scholarship. Having put endless hours into studying over the years, Andy has learned that working efficiently–and knowing when to take a break–makes life much more enjoyable.