Asking questions that probe for deeper understanding

Questions have the power to ignite or short-circuit deeper understanding. While the thoughtfully constructed question might take a discussion to new heights, another can stop it in its tracks. What sorts of questions get students thinking more deeply? How can these questions be planned in advance or developed “on the go”? In this video, Todd Rakoff uses a questioning strategy inspired by Socratic dialogue to probe for deeper student thinking.


Todd Rakoff, Byrne Professor of Administrative Law

Student Group



Harvard Law School


Legislation & Regulation

Group Size

80 students

Additional Details

First-year requisite

  • Listen to student contributions carefully during class discussions, and respond with questions rather than comments
  • Have an outcome for your lesson in mind. Know where you want your students to land so you can flexibly craft questions "on the go" to get them there.
  • Ask questions purposefully (e.g., to clarify student reasoning, to provide evidence for claims, to encourage students to draw broader inferences)
  • Ensure students have sufficient background knowledge of the issues or topic at hand. This can be achieved through pre-reading or establishing the facts of the case at the outset of a discussion.
  • The Socratic method makes course material more relevant and dynamic for students, trains students to be more “practice ready,” and creates more inclusive and inviting classrooms (Abrams, 2015)
  • Students exposed to Socratic questioning in undergraduate physics classrooms achieve higher average pre-to-posttest learning gains on a standardized test than students exposed to more traditional, passive pedagogies (Hake, 2012)
  • A series of well-planned guided questions can facilitate the development of critical thinking and enable students to gain deeper conceptual understanding (Peterson, 2009)