Employing of The Socratic Circle as A Method to Engage

The Department of the History of Kazakhstan, housed in the Medical University of Karaganda, continues to implement and practice diverse methods of teaching and learning amongst second-year medical students. We employed varied techniques to equip our students with learning skills to help them succeed in the social sciences and embed those skills while studying medical subject matters. Indeed, today’s information era allows students everywhere to acquire the required materials to learn content independently; however, they need to know how to construct their knowledge by analyzing and systematizing the concepts requisite to their specialty. The design of this study is qualitative, with the results based on students’ experiences of the Socratic circle discussion in their philosophy course spanning fifteen weeks of their studies between January and May 2019. The students’ responses were accumulated in surveys and focus-group discussions. In addition, 135 students submitted reflections after each practicum class and were scrutinized. Hence, this study aims to explore the extent to which students’ engagement in the Socratic circle discussion influenced their deep learning.


Student-centered learning has been expanding in the higher education system of Kazakhstan. It requires students’ deep engagement in the learning process and enhances their independent learning abilities as a result. Accordingly, faculty members endeavor to apply various teaching tools to enlarge students’ learning space.

Despite the predominance of innovative teaching methods, the regurgitation of learned material remains a focal problem. This is partially related to students’ lack of understanding of assessment paradigms due to a transition from normative-based to criterion-based assessment. With criterion-based assessment, students’ cognitive knowledge and abilities are evaluated based on criteria designed to indicate their achievements. In contrast, in normative-based assessment, students compare their responses with ones deemed error-free or excellent. In this regard, students’ understanding of assessment corresponds to the latter model due to their previous schooling experiences. One of the ways to support students and help them function within the criterion-based mold is by engaging them in the discussion via a Socratic circle.

To enable the shift from simply regurgitating content towards building proper conceptual understanding, the department of the History of Kazakhstan has been leading practical classes using the Socratic circle method. This method facilitates to improve students’ logical thinking skills and helps them clarify and understand their utterances and statements. Students’ experiences were obtained through surveys with open-ended questions and focus-group discussion after completing the course. This article aims to explore the extent to which student engagement in Socratic circle discussions has influenced their deep learning. Considering this, the research question is: How has the Socratic circle as a teaching approach impacted students’ deep learning?

The structure of the article consists of four sections. The first section examines some related literature that has informed us about current studies undertaken in this area. The second section provides the methodology of the study. The third section analyzes the findings, and the fourth one synthesizes our discussion. The conclusion highlights how the findings and discussion results aligned with the existing literature.

Literature Review

The Socratic circle is a widely employed method to improve students’ critical and analytical thinking skills and enhance their interactions. Implementing this method early in students’ tertiary education further develops their transferable skills. In particular, they learn to systematize their thoughts and engage in constructive dialogue on diverse themes with other scholars, thus elevating their ability to question and their teamwork skills.

How is the Socratic circle usually undertaken? There are specific steps to follow within this format application in the classroom environment [1; 2]. Yet, the following key terms remain consistent throughout the literature in this respect. The Socratic circle consists of “inner” and “outer” circles. Students should be divided into small groups of four or five. Inner circle students discuss the issue; meanwhile, those in the outer circle listen carefully and take notes of the discussion. The role of the teacher has been limited to discussion facilitator and thus avoids intervening in the students’ debate. Hence, the procedure provides a vast space for students’ interaction, creating a trusted learning environment among peers.

Before launching this experience, students need to be informed about its basic principles. One of these is how to participate in the discussion. For instance, it is easier to argue against or criticize a person than provide supportive arguments. In the Socratic circle, this can happen due to students’ lack of experience and a narrow focus on the task. Students might struggle with questioning their peers and leading them towards clarifying their thoughts. In such a situation, scholars suggest asking students to put themselves in the speaker’s position or understand their status, which could provide different perspectives to a discussion of the problem [3]. The conversation will enrich the interaction of peers, their sensitive engagement and promote a better understanding of life issues.

Another principle to improve students’ participation in a Socratic discussion is tackling a particular task or problem. This way could involve making decisions together as a team as it requires the skills needed to listen to different arguments and views, weigh benefits and drawbacks, raise challenging questions and find a solution. For instance, in a study by Gnatyshina and Ivanova (2017), Socratic circles brought students together to design projects and kept them focused while they conducted their projects [4]. Another study conducted by Ferholt and Lecusay (2009) showed students’ experience in a K-1 elementary classroom, where, through the Socratic circle, these students tried to decide their role in a theatrical performance prepared for their parents [5]. Hence, the Socratic circle is beneficial to enhancing students’ team working skills through discussion. It, furthermore, fosters students’ active participation and engagement.

The second important principle entails a discussion of social issues. Although new curricula are designed to orient students towards practical matters, students’ involvement in the debate on social problems remains low. In the frame of the Socratic circle, it supports analyses of existing issues in various areas. This method encourages students to analyze social norms and hidden patterns critically. Mitchell (2006) highlighted the questioning of students while discussing particular topics set in the curriculum at the governmental level [6], implying that students consider issues that are important for their country in general. By discussing issues related to their country, students will learn to feel as part of the community and contribute through participation.

The following necessary principle within the discussion is the ability to ask questions. The flow of a debate depends on triggering thought-provoking questions encouraging students to do more than merely seek correct responses, squeeze their points within narrow ideas, and remain repetitive within the material content. In his study, Gose (2009) revealed five ways of asking questions while leading a Socratic circle, and the first one is to ask students their ideas regarding the discussed topic [7]. This way leads to the point where open- ended questions encompass a much-lessened tension or fear of saying something inappropriate on the part of students.

A primary principle is the necessary patience of faculty members and students, a necessary element in growth. Developing clear thoughts takes time, as a Surakarta (India) study among 11th-grade students suggests. The research conducted by Pangestika, Ramli, and Nurmiyati (2017) revealed that students’ argumentation and ideas were relatively weak [8]. Hence, it is only via practice and persistence that learners can achieve excellence in the process and skills involved in conducting successful Socratic circles.

Students can benefit by following some principles in the Socratic circle, and researchers worldwide have emphasized the diverse skills nurtured from it. For example, a study conducted by Grebnev et al. (2014) noted that truth discovery occurs through discussion and the subsequent elimination of contradictory thoughts [9]. In addition, a study of Seggelen-Damen et al. (2017) designated that receiving the viewpoint of others regarding one’s thoughts improves students’ reflective thinking because it is not self-developed but built through interacting with other people [10].

Hence, through accurate employment of the Socratic circle, both students and tutors may gain advantages. Specific steps should be followed within the organization of this type of discussion as this will help to maintain its primary purpose. Socratic circle aside from its prescribed steps, however, participants should consider some side-effects of this approach: misunderstandings regarding the purpose of the process by participants, their potential lack of experience, and the domination of some participants. Nevertheless, international practices of the Socratic circle demonstrate that students obtain the skills to clarify their ideas and experiences through participation, whereas tutors can benefit by extending the learning space for students to promote student-centered learning.


The qualitative research project is designed to scrutinize students’ perspectives through a mixed method [11]. It was undertaken in 2019, between January and May, during a philosophy course. The participants who took part in the research were nine second-year students out of 11 from the General Medicine Department at the Medical University of Karaganda. This cohort of students has experienced the Socratic circle in their practical classes. The focus group discussions allow obtaining students’ perspectives; meanwhile, the rest of the experiences are acquired via three types of surveys oriented towards an examination of how students perceived the tasks for students’ individual work (hereinafter-SIW) in the form of project-based learning: whether students have faced some challenges during the reading tasks for student's individual work with the teacher (here- inafter-SIWT). Finally, surveys collect students’ perceptions of tasks during practical classes alongside the Socratic circle, hence, how the combination of these methods supported students’ deep learning per se. In addition, 135 students’ reflections on practical classes were analyzed.


The research results were classified into three domains. First, we have provided the results of the survey and focus-group discussions regarding students’ perceptions and experiences toward activities employed alongside the Socratic circle during practical classes and the 135 reflections of students. Second, we have scrutinized students’ experiences in conducting research projects with their peers based on the results of their surveys and focus group interviews and observation of students completing the Socratic circle discussions in the practical classes. The exercise was undertaken in the frame of SIW. Third, we have analyzed results of SIWT, students’ reflections on reading extracts from books and articles in English. Finally, we have provided a conclusion on how these experiences helped students accumulate learning materials in depth and increased their reflective thinking throughout the learning process, in other words, improved their deep learning.

Socratic circle: “frightening” and “challenging” vs. “unusual” and “surprising”

At the early stage of the employment of Socratic circles, we had underestimated some students’ interests. They felt confused and lost in this format after their daily educational experience of merely regurgitating information. Moreover, the design required students’ enhanced engagement with the content and that they establish clear ideas and thoughts to deliver, actively listen to their peers, and help their peers to formulate clear sentences logically. This way of participation forced students into conditions of stagnation and fear. They felt the responsibility of their study; however, being initially unclear on how to fit those standards terrified them; here is an extract from the survey:

At the beginning it was very frightening, difficult and unclear, however later it became more interesting, and great and time pass quickly and smoothly (Survey_Student_7, Female, 19 years old).

As seen from the extract, students felt challenged and stressed. The point that was elaborated towards this fear and unclarity was raised in the focus group discussion. For instance, this student was one of the best students in the class, and during the observation, this student did not show any behavioral signs of feeling challenged. Nevertheless, here is the student’s feeling:

I want to say regarding the Socratic circle that at the beginning it was very difficult, we came to some kind of Socratic circle, it was required to say something, moreover you had to speak to align your ideas, how to align was unclear to me, to be honest. Then these terms were philosophical as ontology and I had read them, but when my peers started to express their ideas with terms, I did not understand them. Maybe it was my personal mistake. In the Socratic circle it was difficult to join the group in order to lead a really smooth conversation. (Student_2, Female, Focus Group Discussion_3)

This respondent expresses difficulties understanding her peers’ points in the Socratic circle. It seems that these feelings align with the format per se. It is not just to say what you have prepared, but rather to fit in discussion with the knowledge you have brought to share with your peers. To join the conversation, you need to listen and understand your peers’ views and embed your points to either expand the area of the topic or clarify issues that people are raising. Indeed, a completely different format from rote learning.

Despite some students felt frustrated at the early stage of participating in the discussion, others got involved in the process. In the survey, students positively described their experiences by comparing and listing the skills they gained from this method. Here is one of the points showing a student’s comparison point:

This was very unusual and surprising. This format is completely different from formats that we use in other courses/ modules (Survey_Student_6, Female, 18 years old).

Here it can be observed that the respondent reflects on her experience via a comparison. Students compare the format of the class and how their peers from other courses acted during their learning. In the focus group discussion, students provided more in-depth thoughts in terms of how they have prepared for the Socratic circle and what they have gained from it compared to their peers; here is an extract from the second focus group discussion:

Well, first what I would like to underline is that the format of the class per se was different from other groups, because other groups only took notes [konspectiruyut] consequently they did not understand it. In contrary, our group prepared the practical classes beforehand; we understood that the Socratic circle requires us to say something; this was good because we searched and looked for only interesting facts that we like the most. We highlighted and took notes and when everyone could share with their opinion, we learned to listen other’s (Student_1, Female, Focus Group Discussion_2)

This point demonstrates that the different formats triggered students’ interest in searching for information they would remember while sharing it rather than reading it from a copybook, which implies that students can explain their ideas clearly when they know what they want to say. They are interested in such facts and points that will attract other students’ attention as well. It is important to note that the new format has a limited discussion time of five minutes per group. Therefore, this explains their change in attitude towards the preparation for the class. Further, the following respondent elaborated on this discussion:

Moreover, this information was well perceived; we really choose only the sour [local metaphor means best of the things] of themes and each of us tried to present the most interesting points (Student_2, Female, Focus Group Discussion_2)

To interpret this view, students choosing “sour,” which means vital ideas, demonstrates that they took a certain degree of responsibility for the content of their homework. They wanted it to be interesting, light, and at the same time impressive, which improves the quality of their discussion, as each of them tries to enrich the conversation with new information and differs from rote learning where the repetition of materials is unavoidable due to the utilization of lecture materials. In addition to taking responsibility for the content, students started to construct knowledge that was contrary to their previous experience in forming an understanding. For instance, in the following focus group discussion, the following point was expressed:

The great advantage of this experience is that you cannot embrace the whole theme at a time, anyway you will miss something, and when one person shares his/her thoughts and materials of which you were not aware you spend less time because we exchange our knowledge with each other (Student_2, Male, Focus Group Discussion_1).

Based on this extract, we can underline that students became authorities to each other. They listened to and learned from each other. In the previous teaching model, the teacher’s authority was dominant, with students neglecting each other’s points. Despite this, students who were unprepared for the class benefited by listening to and repeating their peers’ points. Consequently, the Socratic circle helped students redefine their preparation strategy for the class and their performance. Hence, regardless of the challenges that emerged, students benefited from the Socratic circle, gaining skills such as responsibility, reflective and critical thinking, and constructing knowledge.

The implementation of the Socratic circle has been undertaken alongside different methods for engaging and motivating students. These include playing team-building games, drawing concept maps, and writing reflections.

First, to bring students together and release the tense-filled atmosphere, students engaged in team-building games that is important as students were unfamiliar with the Socratic circle. It was thus imperative to create a comfortable learning atmosphere so that everyone would treat each other in a friendly manner. In the survey, students were questioned about the implications of these games, which most of them enjoyed playing and reported relaxation and ease afterward.

Second, often, especially at the beginning, students were confused with the idea of the Socratic circle leading to unproductive discussions. To emphasize key points of the learning content during the class, after the Socratic circle, students summarized all points in a concept map. Here, they underlined their great interest in organizing their thoughts in a brief sentence to highlight the most relevant part of it, and as a challenge, they were then tasked with aligning their ideas with points that had been raised in previous classes. This experience of students underlines their perceptions of learning material in fragments.

Third, conceiving information in fragments was also found in students’ reflections. The 135 reviews they wrote after each class show that they struggled to align their ideas. They understood the critical concepts of the current day; however, how these ideas were intertwined with those of previous classes was unclear. In addition, the students’ way of processing the information fluctuated. For instance, if the topic was related to human beings and ethical issues, they measured it according to their own experiences regarding how they would define the concept. In contrast, if the topic concerning issues related to ontology, they discussed it objectively without any engagement of their personal experiences. These kinds of perceptions inhibited their holistic understanding of subject matter per se.

To sum up, leading practical classes in a new format such as the Socratic circle required much effort. It might have initially seemed that the new approach would undoubtedly have brought immediate success. Yet, although these students had strong educational backgrounds, their experience of the Socratic circle required support from diverse activities. In light of this, students could engage in deep learning. Hence, despite the Socratic circle being a pivotal method to facilitate deep understanding, it was underpinned by different processes to accelerate students’ hidden skills.

SIW: A Project Design

Designing a project was not a new experience for students. They learned this essential skill in the sociology course taken during the first year of their studies, which implies that they extrapolated some of their experiences. In designing their project, the first criterion that needed to be fulfilled was selecting their group members. In this regard, they all set those students with whom they felt comfortable working. They were friends and had previously worked together on another group project. Thus, they were already aware of each other’s capacities. Here is one of the points from the student survey:

This is permanent work with these people in a group for various tasks. We have our exact distribution of responsibilities that suits everyone (Student_9, Female, 18 years old).

Indeed, these might undermine the development of certain skills in each individual as they remain within the shadow of using the same skill everywhere. Some students profit from their group members in terms of encouragement and getting motivated, as this extract points out:

It is very comfortable to work with these people. My team members have approached each task with a high sense of responsibility, which motivated me a lot (Student_7, Female, 19 years old).

The second paramount criterion is the distribution of tasks among participants according to their skills and capacities. This implies that they identified their strength and delegated tasks accordingly, as this quote highlights:

Who can do it better, performed this part; who can do another/did another (Student_1, Male, 20 years old).

The remaining responses also revealed that students clearly distributed each task among themselves. They all submitted their project on time by using their previous knowledge and experiences in this activity. On the one hand, this confirmed and enlarged their particular skill in conducting research, on the other hand, it limited the other skills that they will need in the future to lead their own research. For instance, while completing their own part of the project, they all faced challenges in finding compromises with other group members. This indicates the absence of a good communicator in their team because as a challenge they mentioned that there were difficulties in aligning all points within one idea:

The most difficult part was to align our parts in one file (Student_8, Male, 20 years old).

Besides, students also referred to the fact that they could not arrange a convenient time for all group members to meet and work on the project. This indicates that they all have strong personalities and leadership skills and lack flexibility in the way they communicate. Nevertheless, they endeavored to employ their communicating skills while recruiting respondents to their research. In other words, the situation forced them to step out of their comfort zone. As a result, they enjoyed both the data collection process and the preparation of their final presentation; here is the point from the survey that describes this experience:

The most enjoyable part was interviewing and preparing a presentation (Student_4, Female, 20 years old).

Hence, students’ experiences show that they unconsciously continued to repeat their previous actions. They need critical and reflective thinking towards their own learning experiences. To avoid repetition, activities need to be well-thought-out and organized in that obstacles are created for students to act differently from their usual patterns.

To sum up, it is worth noting that students conducted their project work outside of class time. At the beginning of each class, they asked questions related to their work. At the end of the course, the vice-rector of academic work came to their project defense and provided his feedback. They all remained satisfied with their work. Regardless of the challenges encountered, it has increased students’ communication and analytical thinking skills, as well as their team-working abilities.

SIWT: Writing Reflections

The facilitation of students’ deep learning involved reading book chapters from the original works of philosophers. Previous to having written any reflections, they referred to their first reading as difficult. They faced this challenge because they read the works of philosophers in English, and this language, in most cases, is their third language. In addition, they were unaware of how one reflects on a readable text. Two forms involved either retelling the content or writing a composition about the main heroes or an event at school.

In contrast, within the context of our class, they were supposed to identify and analyze critical ideas, highlight for themselves the exciting points, and pose questions of the text. The themes oriented towards philosophical and ethical issues such as who an individuum is, what constitutes happiness, what represents good and evil, and many other dilemmas that helped them be engaged with the text and sense their life experience within this prism.

The survey included a couple of questions designed to reveal what the students have gained through the reading process. In particular, the results show that all of them could list the name and titles of philosophers' works. Additionally, they could identify their best-liked work and the name of a favorite philosopher. Most of them stated that they developed their analytical thinking skills, and one even mentioned that she used this skill in her pharmacology class, according to this extract:

It was very helpful, to be able to identify a main idea, and to highlight interesting ideas were useful to analyze articles on pharmacology and evidence-based medicine (Student_6, Female, 18 years old).

and here is another point related to their experience of writing:

It taught me to analyze the text and give a thought for contemplation (Student_3, Female, 19 years old).

To summarize, it is useless to encourage deep learning via only one method. Students’ active participation should take place continually. Consequently, they can explore their capabilities by experiencing different roles and positions. Based on students’ responses to the survey, we can say that writing reflections nurtured the students’ attitudes towards their growth. They understood that perfect writing takes time and that only by curiosity can they discover the universe.


This study has contributed to the existing literature. It shows the experiences of students from post-Soviet countries. We are implicitly aware of the difficulties faced by our students; however, we never explicitly ask them how they go through these changes.

Due to our students experiencing the Socratic circle for the first time, the initial implementation faced various difficulties. In the focus group discussion and survey results, the students emphasized they were confused. This led to poor discussion results. This experience highlights the study’s findings conducted by Panges- tika et al. (2017) in India [8].

The current study also contributes to the findings of the work conducted by Altorf (2019), whereby, by questioning each other and setting themselves in each other’s place, students could understand the position of their peers [3]. In this study, students have changed their approaches through the preparation for the practical classes as they were interested in providing points that their peers had not mentioned, thus enriching the content of the discussion.

In this study, the Socratic circle was aligned with designing a project. Conducting such a project united the students and helped them nurture their emerging skills of working in teams and improving their communication skills. In this way, our study contributed to the research findings found by Gnatyshina and Ivanova (2017) [4].


The Socratic circle was insufficient to improve students’ deep learning. Therefore, we identified three significant components crucial to facilitating innovative teaching in the post-Soviet arena.

Firstly, the Socratic circle requires an in-depth explanation. In this study, students’ previous experience of regurgitating the content obfuscated their understanding of the purpose of the format per se. During the first two or three classes, they felt bewildered and struggled to present their points because their task was to develop a smooth conversation where all pieces of information aligned with one another. As a result of practicing the Socratic circle, students changed their attitudes towards preparation for the practical classes. They looked for sour information that would be interesting to present to their peers.

Secondly, the Socratic circle requires a trusting and friendly environment, allowing students to feel relaxed and confident within their circles. A set of additional activities fostered this kind of environment: they were all invited to play team-building games for 10 to 15 minutes before the discussion. After the debate, they were invited to build concept maps where they were asked to summarize all the points learned throughout the class. Through these activities, they developed a sense of belonging to this community and of the significance of their contribution.

Thirdly, the importance of individual tasks to increase their individual capacities was also primordial to the activity. Although human beings belong to the social world, we need to remember that personality and unique character play a significant role in success. Group work is essential, but individuals cannot completely express their will due to the necessity of signaling their respect for other people. In addition, knowledge is a socially constructed concept, implying that each individual experienced this reality is essential. Hence, regarding such aspects, students completed their reflections of practical class activities, reading materials, exercised their writing of critical papers, and conducted project-based tasks.

In sum, implementing such novel methods as Socratic circles requires one to consider many other factors related to each community’s cultural, social, and political background. It is significant to remember the purpose of the novel method and why we are using it, and further, to combine these ideas with existing practices. As a result, students can benefit from their results in the future.



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Year: 2022
City: Karaganda
Category: Pedagogy