Encouraging Students in Socratic Seminar

Two Main Reasons

There are two main reasons why students do not participate in a Socratic Seminar. There are deeper psychological reasons as well, but there are the two that, as a teacher, you can greatly influence. The first is not having something to say, and the second is not being able to enter the conversation. Luckily, these are relatively easy to deal with and a few quick solutions will work to get 90% of the students talking at least a little. 

When the entire group goes quiet at some point, ask a new question or repeat the old one. Use wait time. Use more wait time. Be patient. Keep in mind there are two types of silence: active and passive. If the silence is active, keep waiting (I once waited a painfully long 37 seconds before a group got going). If the silence is passive, don’t rescue the situation; facilitate it. Ask questions: How can we rephrase this question to make it clearer? How can we get unstuck? Where is the text still confusing? What’s another way of looking at this? What do we need to do in order to move forward?          

Consider allowing nervous or withdrawn students to make up the seminar work in some other way. Have them keep a journal, put them in charge of a seminar blog, have them draw a cartoon or create summary poster, and so on. Allow them to turn in papers or replace their participation by recording their thoughts on a video. Keep in mind when grading that students who don’t speak, but don't cause any problems either, still deserve credit for listening.


Not Having Something to Say

By far, the number one reason is that students don’t have a lot of things to say in the first place. This is an issue with the Pre-Seminar, where ideas, annotations, and questions should be developed. In many ways, the more the better. With more annotations, questions and potential ideas, students will always have relevant material to share in the dialogue.

Because seminars are meant to be engaging conversations, questions are absolutely vital. It is often much easier to respond to a question than it is to a statement, and many shy students find it easier to participate by asking a question than sharing an opinion. When the students prepare a text, always have them generate questions. This process will also generate more interest in the topic or text because the students are tapping into their own curiosity.

To get the students initially warmed up for the seminar itself, try Brooke MacKenzie’s “One Quick Thing” from February 13, 2018 on Edutopia. She had students share “one quick thing” at the beginning of class, with three rules: it had to be one thing, it had to be quick, and it could be anything—as long as they were excited about it. MacKenzie found: “As my students began to share one quick thing regularly, I noticed a change in their energy. They burst through the door. They participated actively during the whole period. Even their perceptions of themselves as readers seemed to became more positive.”


Not Being Able to Enter the Conversation

The second most common reason is that the conversation moves too quickly for some students. They do have things to say, but just can’t find the space and time to enter. Many Socratic Seminar facilitators sit outside the dialogue circle and do not participate, but this is one of the many reasons why I am overall against this practice. Look for these shy students trying to enter the conversation and call on them. Model for the group how to be inclusive: “I noticed that Sam has been leaning in to the circle and trying to speak.” Cold-calling apprehensive students rarely works, but try this.

Here is the single best way to get shy students to participate:

  1. Wait for a lull in the conversation.
  2. Ask a new question.
  3. Then use a turn-and-talk.
  4. Re-ask the question.
  5. Then add: “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.”


Other Reasons for Not Participating

Thomas Newkirk, author of Embarrassment, points out that students often opt out or don’t participate because of stigma, shame, or embarrassment. There are many reasons for these feelings, ranging from not wanting to be labeled a nerd, to not knowing how to pronounce a word, to possibly sharing an unpopular idea or viewpoint. For most students, class participation is a gain-loss calculation: What can I gain versus what could I lose? For example, a student may want to speak, but not if he or she thinks there will be a socio-emotional cost. If students aren’t participating, then they likely fear that the cost of participating is not worth it. 

Make a list of everything you can think of that could be a cause of timidity. What could be causing potential stigma, shame, fear or embarrassment? What barriers could you take down? How could you create a safer space? How could you encourage and reward risk-taking? Keep in mind, if there are students dominating the seminars, they will need to be dealt with simultaneously in order to create space for shy students. Get the students involved too, and meet with them outside of class if necessary. Have them make anonymous lists of reasons they don’t participate, and what would motivate them to take risks.

Consider using a text that explores vulnerability, shyness, shame or embarrassment. This may not get shy students to initially participate, but perhaps could lead them on the road to courage and risk-taking. Plenty of Brené Brown quotes or excerpts could work to begin dialogue: “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”


In addition:

  • Track and code participation; look for conversation trends.
  • Use turn-and-talks and think-pair-shares.
  • Use strategies to balance conversation.
  • Have a shy student ask the opening question.
  • Explain WHY students should speak in class.
  • Select a text that connects specifically to that student's interests.
  • Read the text twice and prepare thoroughly with annotations.
  • Give the text ahead of time to certain students, like the "processors."
  • Provide video or audio recordings for students to use on their own time as well. Equity Maps can record audio!
  • Cold-calling on people hardly ever works (use turn-and-talk instead).
  • Be patient! It can take six months of concerted efforts to draw a student out.
  • Use the amazing Equity Maps app to collect, share, and analyze data.


Active Listening, learning, Listening, Socratic Seminar, teaching

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