The Socratic method singles out law students—and sends stress soaring. This professor found a more calm, collaborative way to build argumentation skills.
Professor of Law, Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University
JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence), BA in Political Science
Socrates may have said “wisdom is knowing how little we know,” but his intent was to stimulate creative thought—not crush pupils’ spirits.
Yet that is what Jennifer Kreder, JD, professor of law at Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, saw happening to many law students when the Socratic method was used in the classroom. In this style of instruction, which is common in the study of law, a question is asked of a student, and their answer leads to more and more questions from the instructor—sometimes into areas where there are no clear answers. The approach develops a number of important skills in would-be lawyers—but it is incredibly stressful for students as they answer questions solo, in front of their peers.
“When students walk into a law classroom, I can see stress on their faces,” Kreder says. “I can’t really exaggerate this. A lot of students are terrified of being called on. Even if they are not called on, the tension releases, but then they still can’t concentrate. For a lot of students, the idea of speaking in front of large groups is terrifying. Science studies backed this idea that some people fear public speaking more than almost anything.”
Still, she knew that students struggle with “formulating [and delivering] solid arguments,” which they will need to do for the duration of their education and career. Kreder set out to find a way to develop these skills in a more “comfortable” setting. Then one day the right answer practically revealed itself.
Innovation: Use lottery-style tickets to drive peer discussion
Throughout her 15 years of teaching, Kreder has attended numerous meetings and conferences focused on teaching skills and tools. However, her approach to bolstering students’ argumentation skills, surprisingly, is based in one of her extracurricular pastimes: gambling.
“I like to gamble and even got married in Las Vegas,” she laughs. A few years ago, an academic support coworker mentioned a unique type of testing card reminiscent of scratch-off lottery tickets, which naturally appealed to Kreder.
Called Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) cards, these printed cards can be customized to work with multiple-choice tests, with students scratching off a coating rather than filling in a bubble to select an answer. (See sidebar below.)
“I wanted that interactivity and fun,” Kreder says. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot.’”
Kreder’s idea: to make the scratch-off card a centerpiece of small-group work in some of her law courses. For certain quizzes and tests, the students would divide into small groups, with each group receiving a list of multiple-choice questions and an IF-AT card. The students discuss and debate the questions with one another, and the group must come to a consensus before scratching off the corresponding space on the ticket.
“By using the cards, every student gets to practice formulating solid arguments, instead of just one student being on call in front of the entire class,” Kreder explains. And they get to do so in a much less stressful environment.
“I set a goal for my students to feel comfortable taking a shot and being willing to be wrong. They are much more likely to speak out with an argument in small groups of peers than in front of 180 students with an expert drilling them randomly.”— Jen Kreder, JD
Course: LAW 835 Property I
Frequency: Three 50-minute class meetings per week for 14 weeks
Class size: 80
Course description: This course covers issues related to real and personal property; estates; landlord/tenant relationships; adverse possession; land transfers and mortgages; recording; covenants, easements, and licenses; rights and liabilities accruing from possession and ownership of land; and fixtures.
See Kreder's Scratch Off-Card and Other ResourcesSee materials
Lesson: Collaborative quizzes with scratch-off cards
Kreder first tried using the scratch-off cards in an introductory law course five years ago. It worked so well that she has incorporated it into all of her large classes, which hold anywhere from 40 to 110 students.
The benefits go beyond bringing more students into the conversation in class. “The scratch-offs greatly reinforce the value of multiple-choice testing, which law students must master to pass the bar exam,” Kreder says. The practice also helps to convey that, while law school can feel competitive, the practice of law is collaborative.
Here are a few of the steps Kreder has taken to make sure that the scratch-off and collaboration deliver Socrates-level learning.
A Closer Look at Scratch-Off Cards
Yes, Kreder really does use scratch-off cards in class—but they come from Epstein Educational Enterprises, not a state lottery commission. These Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) cards come in sheets (like Scantrons), with four or five scratch-off answer options per line. One rectangle in each line has a small star under the scratch-off area (meaning it is the correct answer).
If students first select an incorrect answer, many instructors (Kreder included) have them mark their first choice with a “1.” They then try again. If they get the right (starred) answer this time, they can still get partial credit—and Kreder can see if the first choice was selected because of tricky wording.
There are two ways to use the cards: The instructor can follow an answer key to make sure that the correct answers correspond with what is already on the card. Or, to make it easier, the website offers a “Test Maker” where the instructor can input the questions and answers for a test, and the function will automatically shuffle the pieces to work correctly with the selected cards.
Prices start at $90 for 500 forms with 10 question lines and four answer choices.
Create your groups with care
Kreder assigns students to groups during the first classes, taking extra care to ensure that groups are as diverse as possible (e.g., race, gender, GPA, age, undergrad school and major, childhood town). The goal is to have the conversations and debates within groups benefit from different points of view, without isolating anyone. If you let students pick their groups on their own, Kreder notes, they will likely stick with people they know or who are similar to them.
Drive debate with intentionally close answer options
“With some questions, I deliberately make it hard to choose just one answer,” Kreder says. “This leads students to fully explore the arguments from both sides within their groups.”
It seems sneaky, but it works—and it reveals a great deal of information to Kreder, who has students mark their group’s first and second choices with a 1 and 2, if they did not answer correctly on the first try. (See photo above.)
This helps her figure out a few things. First, she can gauge whether one of her questions was poorly worded (because so many students went in a different direction). Second, it helps her uncover what concepts need more in-class explanation. Third, it allows her the freedom to give partial credit where she thinks it is warranted.
“I open an online forum where each group can make a case—for credit—for the choice they made,” she says. “Based on the quality of the arguments, I can decide whether to award full or partial credit for the ‘runner-up’ answer that was really close to the one identified as ‘correct’ on the scratch-off [card].”
The Art of Doing Good with the Law
In the year before she entered law school, Kreder taught English abroad and caught the educator bug before she even set foot in her first law school classroom. “I loved the idea of being a professor,” she says. “But I was also very interested in law since I was sparked by learning about the Civil Rights Era [and the oppression of] African-American people and women. I saw that the law could be used to oppress or to help. I wanted to do good.”
To say that Kreder has “done good” is an understatement. Prior to entering academia, she worked on behalf of Catholic nuns and others tortured and murdered during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s and 1990s. She also worked as a litigation associate in New York, concentrating on Holocaust-era intergovernmental negotiation and property litigation issues, art disputes, and class actions.
Kreder still engages in pro bono and volunteer work—in particular for organizations seeking restitution or the return of artwork stolen during wartime. For example, she has filed amicus briefs—including a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court—regarding Nazi-looted art on behalf of the American Jewish Congress, the Commission for Art Recovery, law professors dedicated to alternative dispute resolution, Holocaust educators, Jewish community leaders, artists, and art historians. She has also submitted briefs regarding cases concerning art stolen during the Russian Revolution.
Kreder often invites her students to participate in her community service legal work so they, too, can see how much good they can do with their own legal expertise.
Constantly facilitate collaboration
“Be mindful of how people are interacting within each group,” Kreder says. She suggests that you circulate during discussions and gently intervene if anyone is dominating a conversation. The idea, after all, is for everyone to participate. She will try to push the students gently, and it usually works: “Sometimes I might have to say, ‘Wait a minute before getting anxious to pick an answer. Listen to Jill’s argument. There is something worth exploring there.’”
If needed, let students do their own scratch-offs
If any particular student feels they were ignored by the group, they can elect to have a personal score supplant the group score. This idea also helps to placate students who are ultracompetitive and may feel “held back” by group work. Interestingly, says Kreder, 99.9% of the time, the group scores are higher, which helps the ultracompetitive students see the benefits of collaboration. To maintain this option, Kreder has the students complete the quiz on their own in 15–20 minutes on individual Scantrons. Only when she collects the individual Scantrons are students permitted to break into groups and begin speaking with others.
Kreder says that similar results occur every time she introduces the scratch-off group exercise: Students are surprised by how much fun it is, and it breaks the tension of an average law class. In fact, Kreder says she loves the moment—and it happens during every new class—when her fearful law school students hear about her lesson and she can see the relief flood their faces.
For students, the best outcome of this lesson might be that it moves them to engage with the material in a new way, Kreder says. They are able to move beyond the fear of being called on in front of a large class, so they can focus on the higher calling of the law. It allows more time for wonder, and, as Socrates said, that is where wisdom begins.