Socrates, Questioning and You: Revisiting the question of questioning

Happy 2016 all! Are you thinking about some educational resolutions? How about reflecting on how you question medical students, especially in a clinical setting?

When we last spoke in December, the topic was Socrates, “pimping” and teaching in medical education (

I ended by saying I’d be back to talk about Socrates and questioning.  Well, I’m back…

We often use the term “Socratic questioning” but what does it mean? Socrates used questions as a way to teach, in that he questioned his students so that they would uncover truths for themselves.


Six Types of Socratic Questions: Here below, are R. W. Paul’s six types of Socratic questions as a modern day interpretation. (There are now 8 types! I’ve combined a few. ) These are from several sources listed below.

What I love is that they are grouped by purpose. You’ll note that none of the less desirable purposes (humiliation, venting, anger, etc.) are present. I’ve put a star beside some of my particular favourites—perhaps you could do the same? Because, as you’ll see next, planning your questions (and that starts with types and purpose) is part of being a Socratic questioner.  Can you see how you could use these in your questioning?


1. Questions for clarification:
  • What do you mean by?
  • How does this relate to x?
  • What is your main point?
  • Can you give me an example?*****!
  • What is the source of that idea or information?
  • Can you summarize what we discussed?
  • Jane, could you summarize what Wei just said? Wei, is that what you meant?*
  • Would you say more about___
2. Questions that probe purpose and assumptions:
  • What is the purpose of _______?
  • What are you assuming?*
  • How would you support your assumptions?
  • What could we assume instead?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:
  • What did you observe?
  • What would be an example? ****
  • What evidence supports your hypothesis? What is it analogous to?
  • Is this good (or enough) evidence to believe this?
  • What is the cause?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?*
  • What do you think causes to happen…? Why?
  • Have you seen this pattern before?
4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives:
  • What would be an alternative? *
  • How could you answer the objection that another group might make?*
  • What is another way to look at it? *
  • Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  • Why is the best?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are…and …similar?
  • What is a counterargument for…?
5. Questions that probe implications and consequences, inferences and interpretations
  • What effect would that have?”
  • What generalizations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption? *
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What patterns have you seen?*
  • How are you interpreting her behaviour? Is there a more logical inference?
  • What have you left out?*
  • How did you reach that conclusion?
  • How does…affect…?
  • How does…tie in with what we learned before?
  • What do you predict will happen next?
6. Questions about the question: (especially if the students are struggling…)
  • How can we find out?
  • Is this the same issue as ___?
  • Can we break this question down?*
  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?*
  • What does…mean? Was the question clear?
  • How does…apply to everyday life?
  • What does this question assume?
  • Why is this question important? *

TIP 1: Try to pose questions that are more meaningful than those a Weekly-Tips-Imagenovice of a given topic might develop on his or her own.

TIP 2: Start with key answers you hope students will give–in other words the key teaching points of the session.

TIP 3: Phrase 3 key questions.

TIP 4:  Use some of the above questions to fill out your Socratic roster.

Are you a “Socratic Teacher?” The teacher who uses the Socratic method is looking for “systematicity”, “depth”, and has a keen interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of things.Close-up-of-Socrates


  1. Model critical thinking
  2. Respects students’ viewpoints,
  3. Probe their understanding,
  4. Show genuine interest in their thinking.
  5. Helps students feel challenged, yet comfortable in answering questions honestly and fully in front of their peers.

Implementing Socratic Questioning in your clinical (or classroom or seminar) setting. Try some of these strategies to build a positive questioning climate bedside rounds

  1. Distinguish upfront between Socratic Questioning and “Hounding”. Ask students to bear with you while you ask keep asking questions as soon as they have answered and tell them why. Let them know this is your educational approach and that there are no ulterior purposes such as humiliation. In other words, set the climate for this kind of questioning by being explicit with students right from the start.
  2. Not all questions have a single “right” answer. Prepare students for the difficult position of having to determine which is most right…sorting through the grey areas, and being wrong, at least first time around.
  3. Set some ground rules: If a case coming up for rounds is an important case (and it’s helpful if you can identify important cases, as medical students may not be able to), it’s fair game, and students are expected to “read around” that case.
  4. You DO ask questions of individual students (but you don’t center out students): Let students know that you will be asking individual students questions as well as asking for volunteers. However, like Socrates did, it’s helpful to have the group help. It’s all in the way you phrase it: “I can see you’re stuck—you’ve done well to get us to this point. Is there someone who can take us to the next question?”
  5. Mature student responses for when they’re stuck: To create the “safe climate for questioning,” students should have mature answers for not knowing an answer that you are willing to accept:
  • Student A. “That’s as far as I can go from my reading, Dr. Z___.”
  • Student B. “In my reading, the ____was the most likely diagnosis. Can you help me with this?” (Don’t be fooled into giving an answer—Socrates would just keep asking questions to get at a deeper concept.)
  • Student C: “I think I do need to call a friend.”
  • Student D:“I didn’t do the reading, Dr. B___I apologize and I’ll pick up tonight.” (However, if this latter student keeps giving this answer, then it’s moved to scholar and professional competencies and you have to switch from Socrates to assessment, and they need to explain what’s going on.)

OR…explain to students what answers you will accept.

It’s important to teach students to acknowledge shortcomings and to motivate them to correct these. It’s also important to give them the language to respond to questions and to accept it.

6. If there is a problem: If the questioner is disturbed by a learner’s diff feedbackpreparation, attitude, or any other issue, humiliation in front of a peer group, or a near peer group is not recommended in any circumstance.  Rather, discussion, with feedback, follow-up and tracking with that student should be conducted separately, apart from the rest of the group. (I know…it’s time-consuming.  But it’s better for the learner and for the teacher.)

7. Forge a relationship on mutual respect, and allow the learner to question the questioner, and to ask for clarification and where to go to learn more.


Do you agree with these strategies? What do you like about the 6 types of questions? Will I ever stop asking questions? 🙂question upside down

Feel free to write back with your questions or answers about questions.


How to Use Socratic Questions:

Kost, A & Chen,F.M. (2015). Socrates Was Not a Pimp: Changing the Paradigm of Questioning in Medical Education. Acad Med. 2015; 90:20–24.

The role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning
Socratic Questions:

The Six Types of Socratic Questions

Schumacher DJ, Bria C, Frohna JG. The quest oward unsupervised practice: Promoting autonomy, not independence. JAMA. 2013; 310: 2613–2614.

Tredway, L. (1995). “Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse.” Educational Leadership. 53 (1).