Socratic Questioning: A Teaching Philosophy for the Student Research Consultation
Socratic questioning, the act of asking questions in order to prompt critical thinking and reflection, expands the boundaries of librarianship by borrowing from the fields of philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology. When employed during the research consultation, Socratic questioning establishes a cooperative relationship between librarian and student that empowers the student to take agency over the interaction. Engaging learners not only academically but emotionally encourages them to become more deliberate and cognizant as they articulate their research need. This paper demonstrates how reference librarians can adjust interactions with students in order to encourage, empathize, and engage with these learners.
by Shannon Robinson
Socratic questioning is the process of asking questions to prompt critical thinking and reflection. The research consultation is an opportunity to integrate this practice into librarianship through learner-focused, engaged conversations with students. Employing this method, the librarian relinquishes the role of expert or gatekeeper and uses deliberate verbal and visual language to establish a cooperative relationship that empowers students to take agency over the interaction. This technique involves learners academically and emotionally, encouraging them to become more deliberate in their research process. Socratic questioning is especially helpful for students whose dominant learning styles include visual, kinesthetic, and interpersonal. These learners’ needs often go unmet in traditional reference encounters. This consultation model enables students to gain the confidence needed to independently formulate and navigate their research processes.
In this article, I examine the research consultation through the vantage point of a Socratic questioner. I provide an overview of how the method is used by clinical therapists and teachers and outline what this method looks like in the research consultation. With examples from my own practice as a liaison librarian, I offer concrete ideas for how reference librarians can adjust their interactions with students in order to encourage, empathize, and engage these learners.
The Student Research Consultation
A consultation is defined as a meeting in which people discuss a problem or question (Merriam-Webster). A research consultation is pedagogically constructive because two experts cooperatively work to find solutions. The conversation is viewed as a dialogue “wherein the librarian assumes the more empowering role of partner as opposed to information guru” (Doherty 107). Dialogue differs from conversation in that it can unbalance one’s perceived understanding of a topic and drive one to further inquiry (Chesters 13). Dialogue during consultation inherently transforms the research process and thereby the outcome. Understanding that collaborative learning is essential to student engagement, hooks considers dialogue integral to engaged pedagogy (43). Students are able to actively monitor their learning process and recognize their ability to control that process (Eckel 17).
By framing the reference interaction as a consultation, academic librarians support students’ abilities to answer their own inquiries, rather than finding the answers for them (Elmborg 459). In this student-centered model, the librarian and student approach the interaction as a team (Tuai). Through dialogue they “construct together a clearer picture” of the research need, a picture that could not have been singly created (Nardi and O’Day, emphasis theirs, 87). This approach to reference services encourages librarians to employ a cooperative learning model, acknowledging that while the librarian is an expert in search strategies and resource evaluation, the student is the master of the research need (Mabry 43).
The in-person research consultation is recognized as an optimal mode of one-on-one instruction that complements classroom-based information literacy practices (Gale and Evans 90). The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) acknowledged the significance of face-to-face interactions by revising their Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers to articulate the differences between in-person and remote reference services (Weare et al.). RUSA’s decision to distinguish between face-to-face and remote interactions should not be taken lightly. While there are now many forms of virtual research assistance, there is a valuable role to an in-person consultation, particularly for students who learn best when directly engaging with others (Cardwell et al. 98). Students appreciate face-to-face interactions because they allow for collaboration through focused, expert-guided dialogue (Magi and Mardeusz 612). Merrill et al. call this “guided learning by doing,” an excellent description of student engagement encouraged through active learning (316).
Some students will independently request a research consultation while others are required by their faculty to meet with a librarian. Often, students ask for a consultation after their own attempt to find and evaluate sources yielded little. They may arrive for the meeting feeling frustrated and concerned that their research topic is invalid. Self-motivated students, when prompted, readily engage in dialogue while others, hoping for a quick resolution to their research problems, are caught off guard at the encouragement to actively participate. However, by engaging in dialogue throughout the reference encounter, all students learn that it is essential to the research process (Dewdney and Michell 62). The librarian encourages students to return to their point of initial inquiry that steered them to their topic. When students are driven by curiosity, learning will follow.
It is implied through the philosopher Plato’s writing that Socrates would ask his pupils carefully crafted questions in an effort to get them closer to the truth through their own examination of a subject. In describing Socratic education, Woodruff affirms that “nothing is more important to this kind of education than the resources that learners bring to it” (14). A teacher asks questions with no clear implication of correct answers, encouraging students to process and critically think about the productive use of information and come to their own conclusions (Hunkins 4). Because the teacher’s questions prompt students’ observation of the complexity of knowledge, they recognize that the teacher is modeling good questioning techniques and that their responses to these questions help them articulate problems and consider different solutions. Students embrace these solutions because they feel that the ideas are theirs, from conception to conclusion (Woodruff 19). This metacognitive activity “enables students to be autonomous learners, empowering them to control their learning” (Hunkins 19).
Socratic questioning is also used in psychotherapy, however there does not appear to be a unified approach to employing the method (Carey and Mullan). In cognitive therapy, Socratic questions “are used to clarify meaning, elicit emotion and consequences, as well as to gradually create insight or explore alternative actions” (James et al. 85). Overholser states that the contemporary application of systematic questioning in psychotherapy is “a cooperative exploration” that encourages clients to reconsider a point of view or suggest new approaches to a problem (“Systematic Questioning” 67). He states that Socratic questioning is not only a method of gathering information, but encourages incorporation and analysis of many types of information (“Systematic Questioning” 69).
Socrates advocated for a one-to-one teaching encounter so that teachers engage students individually, making the research consultation an apt library service for employing this method (Woodruff 36). Additionally, because psychotherapy is often a one-on-one relationship, the use of Socratic questioning in this setting may be examined for possible application to the research consultation. In cognitive therapy, this process of collaborative exploration is articulated by Padesky as four stages of questioning: asking informational questions to which the person knows the answers; listening, particularly to hear emotions and unexpected answers; summarizing the dialogue and sharing knowledge as it is discovered; and synthesizing by applying the new information learned from questioning and listening (5-6).
The connection between the psychological and pedagogical applications of Socratic questioning is clearly demonstrated by comparing Padesky’s four stages to Graves’ six question types developed to assist students in their writing (107-117). While he does not refer to these questions as Socratic, they are expressly within this methodology. Graves recommends opening questions that are conversational and easily answered by the student (108). Following questions enable the instructor to learn more about the student and writing topic, listening carefully and reflecting on the student’s answers (108). Process questions and “questions that reveal development” are those that will help the instructor understand the student’s current progress and stumbling blocks (108-109). Basic structure questions focus on the topic and developing context for that topic (112-114). Lastly, for the student who is too confident in their research ability, the teacher can ask “questions that cause temporary loss of control” for the student (116).
Both Padesky’s and Graves’ series of questions fulfill McTighe and Wiggins’ definition of essential questions. That is, they are open, “intellectually engaging,” require reasoning, move toward “transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines,” provoke further questioning, require rationalized answers, and may be recurring (3). These questions also align with RUSA’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers, especially listening, continued open inquiry, and asking follow-up questions (Weare et al). In particular, the use of open questioning is encouraged because it allows users some control of the conversation, “with the freedom to unfold their stories in a human way” (Dervin and Dewdney 509).
The Socratic philosophy of teaching is not without critics, but it is valuable as a tool to structure conversations between librarians and students. By using this method of questioning during consultations, students are encouraged to focus on how and why they are finding sources and then they begin to understand the research process, becoming more deliberate and cognizant in their search (Schiller 47). Socratic questioning requires students to challenge and disrupt preconceived notions, consider new information, and synthesize and analyze not only the information sources but their own information behaviors (Hunkins 149). Furthermore, it demonstrates the librarian’s role as non-expert, as facilitator and partner. The method exemplifies librarians’ desire to empower, encourage, empathize, and engage with students as novice researchers. It models a practice through which students confidently start independently planning, navigating, and managing their own research processes.
Socrates considered his students “partners in the search for knowledge,” not in an effort to belittle his own intellect, but to empower students to demonstrate and improve theirs (Overholser, “Disavowal” 289). This is addressed through an educational lens by Stover who recognizes that knowledge and expertise are connected to power and authority (277). Librarians collaborate with students to develop and execute information-seeking processes while also teaching them to independently discover and critically evaluate information sources. Yet, to the student, librarians are seen as authorities, gatekeepers who provide access to necessary information. We must recognize hierarchy “while at the same time showing that difference in status need not lead to domination or any abuse of our power” (hooks 114). Therefore, at the very beginning of the consultation, it is important to establish a cooperative agenda that recognizes librarian authority while empowering the student guide the interaction.
An easy step to modify our greeting to be considerate of the whole student is to ask “how are you today?” In an interview discussing her life after the death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg commented on the unintended harshness of “how are you?” because this seemingly simple question can overlook and undervalue a person’s true feelings (Shontell). While Sandberg was speaking directly about people’s concern for her after the loss of her husband, for reference librarians adding “today” to our greeting “how are you?” indicates to our students that we recognize their whole being and their life outside of the classroom. It also signals to them to reflect on where they are and why, in the present, bringing their attention to the time set aside for research and consultation.
Another common introductory question a reference librarian asks a student is, “how can I help you?” The intention is to express that availability, service, and interest are focused on the student, yet the question feels invasive and self-centered as the focus is on me and what I can do. I struggled with this linguistic problem until reading @FeministaJones’ August 2015 Twitter thread regarding white “allies” reaching out to black activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. When offering help, she suggests we ask “what kind of help do you need?” rather than “how can I help you?” Outside the context of her Twitter thread, this was a moment in the development of my own use of language with students. Asking “what kind of help do you need?” places students in positions of power to determine how the research consultation will best support their needs. Rather than telling students what the problem is, the librarian encourages students to articulate and fully understand the issues that prompted the consultation (Leonard).
Since I began phrasing my opening questions as “how are you today?” and “what kind of help do you need?” I have found students are more reflective, pausing to consider why they requested the consultation and how an information specialist may be able to help. Often without further prompting (or, if necessary, I ask probing or elaborating questions), students will answer this question by telling me about the assignment and how they chose their research topic. In articulating what help they need, students begin describing their feelings about the research process and what made them decide to reach out.
The tone of the research dialogue is set by these initial, introductory questions. The Socratic method relies on the student’s current understanding as a point of departure for discovery of new ideas (Schiller 41). The librarian should begin the reference dialogue by asking the student to talk through what they already understand about their research topic and the research process. This builds the student’s confidence, allowing them to recognize the knowledge and authority they bring to the research consultation. Taylor states that these answers “form the context of readiness” of the student (“The Process of Asking Questions” 394). Though these answers tend to be lengthy and nonlinear, they provide the necessary information to devise a search strategy and approach to the remainder of the consultation.
Socrates never considered himself a teacher because this indicates great knowledge (George 385). The Socratic method in psychotherapy refers to this state of being as disavowal of knowledge and requires the therapist to disregard the role of expert (Overholser, “Disavowal” 284). That role falls to the client, who is experiencing the problem and therefore holds the necessary information to solve the problem. Disavowal of knowledge has three parts: “intellectual modesty, a genuine desire for knowledge, and collaborative empiricism” (Overholser, “Disavowal” 288). From a teaching perspective, hooks asks us to be open minded and “willing to acknowledge what we do not know” (10). According to Stover’s view of the non-expert, this is not denying our authority or knowledge; rather, as teachers, we seek to build relationships with students “based on mutual respect and a desire to learn through conversation” (277). In order to learn, one must first become aware of what one does not know and asking questions demonstrates awareness and initiative to learn (Hunkins 44).
How can an experienced reference librarian approach a consultation with intellectual modesty? While disavowal of knowledge can imply that teachers already know the answers to their questions, Padesky admits that in cognitive therapy sessions good questions lead to “a million different individual answers” (4). Working as a subject specialist, I hear the same research topic again and again. But the student is different so I may ask the same questions, but expect new answers. For librarians, Elmborg states that “perhaps the hardest part of learning to teach is learning to ask questions rather than supply answers” (459). Together, the librarian and the student begin to recognize that a simple question is not necessarily simple, nor does it have a singular answer (Hunkins 32).
To encourage a dialogue of questions and unexpected answers during the searching stage of the consultation, I describe what I am doing and why. In this way, I model a process of talking or wondering aloud, expressing areas of ignorance and intellectual curiosity. As an example, if I encounter unfamiliar disciplinary language during a search, I will admit to not knowing the terms and ask the student if they have encountered the terms in class. If they do not know terms, we look up definitions together. If they do, we move forward together with this new knowledge, using the terms as search keywords. Hunkins suggests that when students see a teacher use their ideas in practice, this fosters “a feeling of joint inquiry, of cooperative learning” (214).
Because I do not assume that a student will connect their initial research need with my search process, wondering aloud makes the process explicit for them (Beck and Turner 87). Even if I am well informed on a topic, I allow students to move through a phase of discovery, recognizing that not only will this help them learn but it impacts my own understanding by broadening my perspective to include novice scholars’ points of view. Narrating my search strategy encourages students to also wonder aloud and ask pointed questions so they better understand the complexities of the search process. When a possible source is found, we examine it together and I ask for their thoughts, guiding them through an evaluation of the source. Graves states that such conversation “provides the mirror” for the student who “needs to hear and see himself” in the research process (109). As I make my process known, step by step, I provide students with a concrete model that they may later independently employ.
Not unexpectedly, this process takes time. “For students to think, they need time to raise questions about what they encounter and then to query their questions so they recognize the question’s centrality to thinking, to make meaning” (Hunkins 15). Hunkins refers to Mary Budd Rowe’s notion of wait time; if students are provided ample time to answer, their responses often demonstrate critical and variant thinking (208). However, it is unlikely that students will come to the research consultation in a slow-thinking mindset. This is because, as Berg and Seeber describe in The Slow Professor, “the corporatization of universities…has led to standardized learning and a sense of urgency” (8). Coupled with feelings of anxiety and frustration from the research process, students welcome the opportunity to slow down, wonder aloud, and reflect on not only their research, but also on the classroom and other academic experiences. Allowing the time and encouragement for students to reflect on the reasons they are engaging with a librarian demonstrates empathy and holistic support for students.
In replying to questions about their research inquiry, students will include in their answer how they are feeling about the topic and the research process as well as concerns about time management, outcomes, and grades. Students not only consider their methods and progress but consider personal interests, values, and emotions (Hunkins 36). hooks reminds us that even if we choose to ignore students’ (and our own) emotions, “it does not change the reality that the presence of emotional energy over-determines the conditions where learning can occur” (160). Paying attention to emotions in this context is an example of “caring with” others, rather than “caring for” (Chesters, emphasis hers, 134). Caring with, Chesters states, “motivates participants in a dialogue. This aspect of care thinking [leads to] care for others, and care for the topics that students deem worthy” (135). Asking how a student is feeling about the research situation establishes motivation and temperament and provides the librarian with an answer to the “why” of the information need. Understanding the student as a person, rather than as a reference inquiry, shapes the search strategy.
In the past, during a reference dialogue I would ask “do you have any questions?” Recognizing that students may be unable to articulate their needs as questions, I then shifted my question to ask, “how are you doing?” However, both questions can be answered in one word, usually “no” or “fine.” My intention is to understand how this meeting is going, how our practice of questioning, searching, and wondering aloud is affecting the student. Now I ask what I actually want to know, “how are you feeling?” While this can be answered by a student with one word, it often is not. The student hears in this question an intention to know them fully, not just by their research topic. Two answers I have received when asking about feelings demonstrate the effectiveness of this question. In the first example, after demonstrating a keyword search in a discovery catalog and sorting through results, I asked the student how she was feeling. She enthusiastically stated that she felt great. She saw the thousands of results seemingly related to her topic. Then she noted that there are too many results and she was overwhelmed. The student wondered if she should entirely change her research topic.
There is no question in this student’s response, yet reference librarians are able to pinpoint questions related to information overload, filtering results or redefining keywords, and evaluating sources. Instead of asking the student to articulate questions about narrowing the scope of her research or determining the best sources for the topic, I asked her to describe her current emotive state and I used that descriptive answer to deduce the questions the student didn’t yet have the vocabulary to ask.
In a research consultation with another student, my question regarding feelings received an honest answer. The student said he was actually a bit distracted from the task at hand, finding resources for his thesis. He had a job interview the next morning and was really nervous. He had not been very focused on the thesis, even though the literature review bibliography was due later that week. Being a student is only one aspect of a very complicated person. In that moment, this student was trying to be present and engage with me but another part of his life took precedent. His answer was an opportunity for me to restructure our interaction to be more in line with his current situation. I empathized with him and said I would understand if, later in the week, he may not be able to recall information learned during our consultation. We wrapped up the consultation sooner than expected but having outlined next steps for when he was ready to revisit his thesis research. I provided means for getting in touch with me later in the week and encouraged him to contact me again. “By introducing the language of ‘feeling’ to the interaction, one can express both recognition and acceptance of the student’s feelings and the significant impact those feelings have” (Anderson 1).
Often students will apologize to me for “ranting” about their research experience or how life seems to impede their academic success at every turn. Many students will say “thank you for listening.” One of the reasons the face-to-face research consultation has not been fully replaced by virtual reference is the clear attention to and recognition of a student’s emotive behaviors. Magi and Mardeusz found numerous benefits cited in the literature of the in-person research consultation including the importance of visual cues and creating an environment for the librarian to express empathy and curiosity through collaborative dialogue (606). Their research supports these benefits as they note that students who had just finished a consultation felt restored confidence and inspiration (613). The conversation with the librarian “helped relieve their anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed” (614). Inquiry into the student’s feelings throughout the consultation indicates a desire to build rapport and shows an interest in the student as a whole person.
Librarians should also share feelings during a consultation, establishing “the groundwork for forming an alliance with the patron” (Quinn 189). Taylor notes that one reference librarian trait important for successful consultations is empathy (“Question-Negotiation” 183). George also encourages reference librarians to talk with their students about their feelings regarding their research topic and, in doing so, inform the user of our own knowledge gaps, which aligns with disavowal of knowledge (385). But what is even more important than asking about feelings is listening to the answers. Referring to Stover’s position of non-expert, librarians must be “intuitive and reflective practitioners” (285). This requires careful listening and interpretation of verbal and nonverbal cues. He concludes, “perhaps expertise in reference librarianship is related more to ‘emotional intelligence’ than to traditional notions of intelligence” (286).
Socratic questioning may leave a student with more questions and perspectives to consider, with many “inquiring journeys” ahead (Hunkins 151). It is not merely solving problems but teaching others methods for autonomously doing so (Padesky 4). As the reference consultation is coming to a close, the librarian must be confident that the student is capable of independently moving forward with the research process. It is likely that a student feels successful immediately after a research consultation, but how will they feel once they are on their own?
Ross and Dewdney suggest that every reference transaction end with a clear follow-up question that implies the patron may return for further assistance (161). “What will you do next?” or “how will you reach out if you need additional help?” are deliberate questions that ask the student to reflect on the entire research process, rather than this one step, the consultation. Graves considers these process questions; that is, they makes the student reflect on their research method and not just the outcome (109). Within these questions is the acknowledgment that the research conversation doesn’t have to end with the current encounter. Secondly, it recognizes that whatever hurdles the librarian and student jumped together, there will be more in the timeframe of this research project. Asking a student at the end of an encounter, “how will you reach out if you need help?” requires them to consider next steps.
In my subject specialty, art and design, I often take the next step with the student. Because print books are one of the best sources in these disciplines, we continue our conversation in the stacks, pulling books by call number and serendipitous discovery. Like thinking aloud during the search process, verbally articulating how I am finding and evaluating books provides an opportunity for modeling good research behavior (Beck and Turner 88). Context reinstatement psychology is also useful here, as the physical activity in the stacks will help students later in recalling processes and conversations (Moody and Carter 390). The time in the stacks not only provides an opportunity to demonstrate how to browse and evaluate print material, but also evidence of a successful reference encounter for assessment purposes.
As the research consultation comes to a close, student responses to my question “how will you reach out if you need help?” illustrate that they are reflecting on the process and provide me with verbal confirmation of what they learned. In one consultation, I sent an email to the student with links to the resources found together. When I asked about reaching out if she needed more assistance, the student said if she had any more questions she would reply to that email. Another student remarked that my contact information was on the subject guide and that he could also see when I was on reference chat. A third undergraduate felt certain she would not need more assistance with her research for a particular project, but said she would contact me again soon to discuss another assignment with which she was struggling. A graduate student remarked that she was meeting with her thesis advisor the following week; she had learned so much new information during our consultation that she predicted she would need further assistance after meeting with the advisor and would likely get back in touch with me then. While none of these students would likely need a full research consultation again, they left the consultation recognizing that their work was not done and that they were welcome to reach out again.
In clinical psychology, therapists using Socratic questioning are considered “more empathic, more warm and friendly, more honest and sincere, and more collaborative” (Overholser, “Self Improvement” 549). Research in the educational field shows that teachers’ questioning increases student learning and impacts thinking processes (Hunkins 18). In our discipline, Stover reports that user satisfaction with reference inquiries center on interpersonal skills rather than right answers. Factors including expressed interest, active listening, empathy, and collaboration are all reported by library users as signs of satisfactory service (Stover 289). In particular for students, “they are not simply completing their homework; rather, they are becoming better students” (Schiller 53). Hunkins echoes this notion, confirming that, through questioning, students see how the inquiry process they are practicing connects to their lives outside of the classroom (5).
Since employing the method, I have found that my research consultations are longer because students are engaged, curious, and responding willingly to me listening and reflecting with them on the research process. Socratic questioning encourages students to challenge their own thinking structures, to disrupt them, contemplate alternatives, and consider consequences to the alternatives. Questioning makes students judge the worth of their positions and assess the value of new positions (Hunkins 149). As a librarian, I am successful when students succeed; in the words of Socrates:
“Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; – that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power” (Plato).
The Socratic method stems from a passion for learning (Woodruff 27). This passion, when modeled by the guide, can shift students’ perceptions of their learning. Not only will they value the process, but delight in taking ownership of it.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Sara MacDonald and Stephanie Beene for early draft feedback. Many thanks for the insight and support from reviewers Eamon Tewell and Annie Pho, and publishing editor Sofia Leung.
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