Socratic Powerpoint?

Next term, I’m adopting a new casebook in corporations: Klein/Ramseyer/Bainbridge (7th edition).  As a part of the new prep, I’ve decided to try using powerpoint more in class.  I’m already second-guessing myself about the choice. I realize that socratic teaching (even when done well) has huge costs.  Among them: it distorts students’ views of how to be a good lawyer; it’s very slow; it makes women feel worse than men; it’s not oriented towards transactions and thus it’s hard to use it to lead a drafting session; and it’s a power-trip for the instructor, and thus is susceptible to abuse. But socratic teaching is interactive; it motivates students to be prepared and increases the value of being in class; and (most importantly) it helps students to learn judgment by confronting their bad arguments.  Those are tremendous virtues, and up to this point in my career, have outweighed the method’s costs.

Why then the switch in Corporations?  Well, for one, the course contains tons of vocabulary that students need to understand.  I’ve had mixed success in the past in teaching this crucial foundational material.  (My general approach: assign reading which explains the vocabulary and expect students to know it.)  Second, understanding corporate cases sometimes requires the professor to sketch out the transactional structure.  In the past, I’ve used the white board, but my handwriting is terrible and it’s never as clear as it ought to be.  Third, I want to see if I can connect with some of the visual learners in the class, and improve overall performance on the exam. Fourth, the casebook authors provide a set of model powerpoint slides which are very useful — I’m not going to adopt most of them, but I can certainly copy some nice graphics! Fifth, these comments by Steve Bainbridge have been eating at me for a while.  Finally, I’d want to make the course more economically sophisticated: to talk in depth about agency costs; to explore the incentives of various corporate stakeholders; to bring in material from history, political science, and psychology.  It’s just not possible to do this when the students lead the discussion.  So, I’m going to use the class as an experiment.  If it works, great, maybe I’ll consider adding more visual aids into the first-year contracts course. If it doesn’t, I can always change gears during the semester.

Having seen many of my colleagues use powerpoint, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to run a classroom using powerpoint as the foundation of the lecture but still get some of the advantages of the socratic method — i.e., asking questions that motivate students to think and prepare.  (By contrast, it’s easy to merely flash a few slides that contain code provisions you want to focus on.)  Mechanically, it’s just awkward: do you prime the class with questions on powerpoint but not write down the “answers”?  If you don’t write down the answers, what’s the point of powerpoint?  When I teach socratically, there’s freedom to come off track, since we’re simply doing repetitions on a theme: how could we make the argument under discussion better?  But with powerpoint, the class is much more structured: I’ve 86 slides to get through on veil piercing, and, gosh darn it, you are going to see every one.

If you’ve experience melding a Socratic discussion with powerpoint, I’d love to get your comments and suggestions.  My current perspective is that a class built around powerpoint that still attempts to have the students provide the intellectual engine is a bit like a badly prepared turducken.

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15 Responses

  1. Randy Picker says:

    I do use powerpoint and am still socratic. The way that I have done this in the past is to post different pre and post class slides, with the post class slides having answers. See, for example, my last pass through Copyright ( ). That is a certain amount of work and you have to decide whether the pre and post approach is worth it.

  2. I use powerpoint extensively but remain socratic in a variety of ways. My P&T reviewing colleagues tell me they think it’s effective.

    My general procedure is:
    1. Black letter goes on slides, but not answers to hypotheticals that apply the black letter
    2. I often use “clickers,” which allows me to put a bunch of socratic style hypotheticals on the slides and get answers from the entire class. I then probe the responses from people who voted in different ways
    3. I can put a quote in a slide and then ask questions about it
    4. I ask about relatively simple fact patterns, but put more complex ones in slides and then ask questions based on the facts that all can see

  3. J Layton says:

    I use an approach much like Risch. But one thing I haven’t mastered but should: using “presenter’s view.” “In the Presenter’s View the audience will see the presentation just as they would normally, but on the presenter’s screen is some extremely useful information. Instead of having a full screen presentation it is scaled down so that a scrolling timeline of the slides is shown along the bottom, and the notes from each slide is shown along the right side. hat allows you to see and click on thumbnails of your slides while the students just see one at a time.” (see “Presenter’s view” would help me avoid one of the biggest powerpoint problems: the need to proceed in a predefined linear fashion.

  4. I use PowerPoint and am accused by my students of being quite Socratic in my method. I use slides in all of my classes, but their uses vary.

    A common use is to illustrate the cases. More visually oriented students have told me this helps them remember what’s going on, so they can focus on the legal issues. In constitutional law this may mean pictures of the various justices. In environmental law it typically means pictures of the places or industrial processes at issue, or diagrams of transactions (as when tracing Superfund liability) and the like.

    I often use the slides to post questions as a way of focusing discussion, or reminding the class of where we are in case we get off track, but I rarely post answers, at least not at first. Sometimes, as a means of review, I’ll post slides with the basic rules for a given unit.

    Another use for slides is to post statutory or constitutional text. Most of our classrooms have “smartboards,” so I can mark up the text as we discuss it, highlighting or editing key phrases. I find this can help unpack the meaning of the language.

    Finally, when I’m feeling more ambitious, I’ll embed hyperlinks in my slides so that I can present them in a non-linear fashion and follow the class discussion wherever it leads. This is more labor intensive, but for some material it works quite well.


  5. Mike Guttentag says:

    I teach this course using this casebook in a Socratic manner (by which I simply mean with very little outright lecturing). The one observation I would emphasize is that I am a firm believer that less is more. Every year I cover fewer cases during the semester, and on average I use about 30 powerpoint slides for a two hour lecture. The slides I use started as a version of the Bainbridge slides five years ago, and now are something different, focusing primarily on providing a way to visualize all of the material (particularly the business and finance material) we cover.

  6. Orin Kerr says:

    In my 1L class I often begin with a 5-10 minute powerpoint slide presentation of the basic rules and the major questions to be explored. I then put the powerpoint away and we have a socratic discussion of the cases — or perhaps a socratic discussion that turns into an open class discussion and debate — in which we explore those major question.

    I like the combo, and students seem to like it too. The power point is helpful because I get to make sure that that everyone is starting with a basic understanding, and students like it (especially the 1Ls) because they feel like I am helpfully “giving them the rules” in the beginning. We then explore the nuances and the difficult policy questions in the rest of the class just like we would without the powerpoint slides.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    As a transactional practitioner, it’s very heartening to hear about the interactive use of visual aids in law school. Something visually stimulating that enables everyone to devote more of their brain to thinking abut a problem instead of remembering complicated wording or facts is essential in negotiations, too. In the real world, white boards are often more useful than PowerPoints, though the latter do have their place. Too many practitioners are stuck in a words-across-the-table mode; showing them as students that richer interactions are possible can only be helpful.

  8. Dave Hoffman says:

    Very helpful suggestions so far! Jonathan – what do you mean when you write “I’ll embed hyperlinks in my slides so that I can present them in a non-linear fashion and follow the class discussion wherever it leads.” Do you mean that you can jump between slides, or to the web?

  9. Howard Katz says:

    In my Con Law I class I posted “note scaffolds” on my TWEN site for each class. The content was basically what I would have shown as a powerpoint – bullet points, specific language, etc. The advantage to students is they can use them as the outline of the class and add to them (as a Word document), they can print them out, or they can have them on their computer screen (which may or may not discourage other less productive computer activites). The advantage for me is that I don’t have to coordinate my presentation with particular “slides” – I can conduct the class as I otherwise would, relying on the students to find the relevant portion, and being free to deviate from the planned order if the discussion warrants. In a statutory course I might make more specific references to where we are in the outline, but otherwise the approach would be similar.
    Granted one doesn’t have zippy graphics projected on the screen (though whether that’s a good or bad thing is subject to debate).

  10. As a co-author of the case book you’ve adopted (many thanks) and author of the PowerPoint slides we provide, I think PowerPoint offers the advantage of providing a structure that keeps the class organized, which students value a lot, and also the advantage of permitting visual presentation of concepts hard to describe in words.

    As someone who’s gone entirely to lecture, of course, I don’t worry much about how to use PowerPoint in a Socratic environment. But one thing I’ve learned is that you have to be willing to throw out the slide organization some times. I encourage students to ask questions and sometimes their questions require one to skip around in the presentation. On those occasions, I’ll use the slide navigation tools built into PowerPoint to move around. And sometimes their questions will trigger a digression that requires me to use the black screen option, raise the projection screen, and fall back on the blackboard underneath. It’s mostly a matter of knowing the material well enough to be able to toss a canned presentation under the bus when the moment calls for doing so.

    One thing that crops up in my student evaluations from time to time, BTW, is that they’re impressed by the fact that I don’t take notes to class. Being able to talk as the PowerPoint slides progress without being tied to a set of written notes (or printed slides) conveys a command of the material, especially if you can wing it when necessary.

    But if my comments are eating at you, try coming over to the dark side. The water’s fine in a world without the Socratic method.

  11. Dave —

    Both, but mostly I put hyperlinks in slides that link to other slides. I’ve done this different ways, depending on what seems to make sense (or how ambitious I decide to be).

    One way is to make an index slide that has links to various slides illustrating different issues or concepts. Done this way, the slides are organized with the index slide as the center and the specific subject slides as spokes. This often works well if exploring text — like in a statute — where I can add different links to different words if the discussion ends up focusing on the meaning of a given word or phrase.

    A second way is to create a “master” slide with buttons along one side, each button going to a different slide on the subject. Creating a master is an easy way to reproduce the buttons on every slide, so I can go from any slide to any slide to follow the discussion.

    A third way, which is much more limited, is simply to place links in slides on an ad hoc basis that bring up supporting material that may be relevant. So, to take a very basic example, when I teach Marbury v. Madison, I have a basic slide with pictures of the principals, and then buttons for text from Article III, the Judiciary Act of 1789, and a few key quotes from the opinion, and I can bring them up (or not) to follow the discussion.

    In all cases, what I’m trying to do is take advantage of what PowerPoint has to offer without constraining my ability to follow the discussion wherever it goes.


  12. Tony Ramos says:

    Those interested in the potential of non-linear, interactive presentation methods within PowerPoint might want to check out the three videos explaining “Relational Presentation” here:

    As Robert Lane of Aspire Communications explains, and as alluded to by others here, this is neither terribly difficult nor new in PowerPoint. We are, however, far too accustomed to the linearity of slideshows.

    One of my clients presents PPT slides to the FDA during drug approval presentations. The FDA might have questions about particular studies or aspects of the drug. The presenters need to be able, in an instant, to call up one of hundreds of hidden slides in order to answer that question. Hundreds of other slides may never make it to the screen, but they are there in case they are needed.

    This is a lot of work, but delivering exactly what the audience needs — in real time — is worth it.

  13. I’m a non-Socratic teacher as well, so I can’t say how to use slides best in a Socratic environment. I can say that for my own style — mixed lecture with frequent exercises and mandatory and frequent student participation — powerpoint works very well.

    We tend to discuss the case and/or statute for a while — I ask for someone to give the facts, I fill in blanks where needed, we discuss the issue. At some point, I say, okay, so, we agree, the spendthrift statute (or whatever it is) sets out X-many main points. Those come up on powerpoint.

    And then we have a set of exercises. You think you understand the spendthrift statute? Let’s find out. What if the claimaint is a felony victim seeking restitution? What about child support? And on, and on. (Students get participation points for answering exercises or participating in discussion, and I track them; overall, participation is worth 10% of a student’s grade.)

    I try to mix it up because (1) I am a skeptic of the Socratic method, and (2) I want to use a broad-ranging style that will reach as many students as possible.

    The four basic learning styles are reading, visual / pictoral, listening, and kinesthetic / exercise. I teach at a lower-tier school, where we tend to have fewer readers (who overperform on the LSAT) and more kinesthetic learners (who underperform on the LSAT). So unlike at Columbia where professors could assign reading and just assume that everyone got it, I’ve got to do some amount of walking people through the case and/or statute. My readers will get it; my kinesthetic learners will struggle more. The structured powerpoint exercises are how I try to reach my kinesthetic learners. I also use diagrams on the board a lot, for the pictoral learners.

    I think that it works. I tend to get very good student evals — and I teach two large-section, “unfun” reputation classes, Business Associations and Wills & Trusts. Students tend to like my classes, and I think that they learn as well as they can in my classes, and that’s ultimately what I’m after.

  14. I should note, one disadvantage of my approach is that the particularly smart students (especially reading learners) tend to get bored in my classes, because they already picked up the contours of the case or statute on their read through, and now we’re going through it with exercises to make sure that their classmates understand it.

    I don’t like the fact that I’m boring some students, but I don’t know if there’s a good way to avoid it. Sure, we could discuss fun quirky statutory or case wrinkles or cool policy questions with the whiz kids, and class would be a lot more entertaining for that segment. It would be totally unhelpful for the students who are struggling to understand.

    At Columbia, I had profs who would just go on impromptu riffs for 20 minutes (or more!) about baseball, or sandwiches (really!), or Jungian psychology, or whatever caught their fancy. Those were lots of fun. (One brilliant and quirky Columbia prof — whose class I didn’t have — famously went on a multiple-class-long tangent about whale migration.)

    There’s no way in hell I could do that with any of my classes. I have students who need help picking up the material, and it’s my job to help them.