This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on April 8, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. Students often put in a great deal
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Mention “teaching to the test” among educators and you will certainly hear a lot about what is wrong with education today and probably more about the importance of teaching critical thinking (and how this cannot be done when you are teaching to the test). Let me suggest a slightly different take on working with tests and the development of, if not critical thinking, greater self-awareness among students as learners—teaching with the test as a form of Socratic mentoring.
At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.
Questioning skills are essential to good teaching. Teachers often use questions to ensure that students are attentive and engaged, and to assess students’ understanding. What is important to note is that in addition to the intent of the question, the question itself matters. For instance, to ensure that students are attentive, a teacher could ask the students “Are you listening?” To assess if the students have understood, the teacher could ask “Do you follow me?”
The Socratic questioning strategy described in the article appealed to me. I could see how it would cut down on quizzes, grading, and the whole sad enterprise of writing multiple- guess questions that dulled students’ thinking. I made some adaptations and expectantly implemented it in my introduction to political theory course.
Those expectations quickly dissolved. At her desk, one of my best students…