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Better Socratic-method teaching: Have small groups work together in a Google Doc to write out answers to questions

The pandemic and Zoom-only classes of recent semesters have led to some enhancements in how I do Socratic-method teaching in my contract-drafting classes at the University of Houston Law Center (and in a new mini-course for the Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business). This approach can also work for in-person classroom settings, not just in Zoom classes.

Here’s how it works:

  • For each issue, I pre-build a Google Doc with a fact pattern, some questions, and spaces for small groups of students to collaborate in writing answers. See the excerpt below from an actual Google Doc:
  • The Google Doc is set to allow anyone having the link to comment — not to edit. That way:
    • The students’ comments are shown in different colors.
    • Students can participate without being logged into Google — and if they’re not logged in, then their comments are anonymous, which some students prefer.
  • When we’re ready for Socratic discussion of that particular issue, I send students to small groups — in Zoom breakout rooms or “turn to your neighbor” if in person — to discuss and collaboratively write answers to the questions in the Google Doc. See the different-colored student comments in the example below.
  • Importantly: I don’t join any breakout room — instead, while still in the main Zoom meeting, I “lurk” in the Google Doc. As I see students write answers in the Google Doc, I add my own real-time corrections and comments in [BRACKETED ALL-CAPS]. That gives students instantaneous feedback — visible to all students.

Each group can see each other group’s comments; that’s fine with me, because that way the groups can learn from each other.

When I see that the breakout groups have answered the questions, we come back to the main Zoom room and discuss the questions and answers in committee-of-the-whole format. This lets me “participate” in each breakout room more-or-less simultaneously.

Students seem to like this approach, both at UHLC and in my just-concluded Rice course, where the students said in a feedback form that:

  • “Discussions helped confirm everyone else was as lost. However, feedback from professor immediately was useful”
  • “[I]t was a good mechanism to keep people on task instead of wandering discussion within the breakout. Also it forced the breakouts to think through their answers as they wrote them out” 

(Emphasis added.)

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

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