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Oceans Socratic Questioning

Created by Dorothy Merritts and Robert Walter, Franklin & Marshall College (dorothy.merritts@fandm.edu; robert.walter@fandm.edu)
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Questions regarding the oceans are arranged in sequence for a session of Socratic questioning and learning.

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Learning Goals

To understand the ways in which ocean-floor landforms, such as mid-ocean ridges and deep-sea trenches, are created and shaped by plate tectonics. To recognize the various causes of sea-level change and the time-scales over which those causes operate. To develop a sense of the ways in which sediment transport in the near-shore environment produces beaches, barrier islands, and other marine landforms. To gain an appreciation for the importance of ocean currents in transporting nutrients and influencing climate.

Context for Use

This example is suitable for in-class use during a lecture period. No equipment is required unless the instructor wishes to use supplemental images. In that case, the images can be shown either with an overhead or computer projector. Resources for teaching about the oceans are available at numerous web sites, which add significant impact to this topic during class discussions. Some examples are given below in References and Resources.

Teaching Materials

Samples of Socratic questions arranged in sequence for a session on the oceans:

  • Which landform do you think is associated with the highest amounts of volcanic and earthquake activity in the oceans: the continental shelf or mid-ocean ridge? Why?
  • How do plate tectonics and climate change affect sea level? If sea level were to rise 10 cm in the 21st century, what might be the cause(s)? How would you assess the plausibility of your hypotheses?
  • Where might you expect to find the most nutrients in seawater: warm tropical waters along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, cold polar waters off the coast of Antarctica, or equatorial waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Why do surface and deep ocean currents contain such different amounts of nutrients?
  • What organism lies at the base of the marine food chain, and how does it acquire nutrients for its own sustenance? What would be the impact on the entire marine food chain if an important nutrient for this organism were to increase? Or to decrease?
  • The oceans are global in extent, with waters that flow in vast current systems, so it is particularly challenging to divide marine resources among nations. How might nations determine rights and access to economic resources in the marine environment? What should be done if one nation exploits one or more resources to the detriment of other nations?
  • Sand is carried from continents to oceans by rivers, then added to and removed from barrier islands and beaches and transported along the shoreline. Describe and compare the processes that drive this continuous flux of sand along coastlines. What might happen to a given stretch of coastline if a large river were dammed near its mouth and the flow of sand were to stop (by sedimentation in the reservoir)?
  • Additional questions, and general answers to most questions, can be downloaded as a PDF file from Oceans Questions and Answers (Microsoft Word 41kB Aug6 03).

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    Tips: As in all Socratic questioning, give students time to reflect before answering questions, and make an effort to call on different students throughout the class period. Let students know at the beginning of class whether or not you will call on students randomly, or ask for hands to be raised, or both.

    To explore the questions on the oceans fully, allow at least a full class period of 50 to 90 minutes.


    Many simple details can cause problems when using Socratic questioning. For example, students might feel that they never are given quite enough time to reflect on the answer before called upon. They might not be able to hear some of the other students' answers, especially in a large classroom. They might find it very challenging to take notes during the questioning and response session, and at least will find it more difficult to take notes than during a traditional lecture/chalk class.

    The best way to determine what problems are occurring is to give students a questionnaire after each of the first few classes in which the approach is tried. Ask students directly if they think that you are allowing sufficient time for reflection. Ask if they are concerned about hearing other students' responses, and so forth. Add one question that asks students to make note of any problems not referred to in the questionnaire.

    Each student should be able to answer any of the questions that was posed during the Socratic questioning session. A good way to assess what the students have learned from a Socratic questioning class is to give a short quiz in which several of the questions from the previous class are listed. This quiz can be given at the beginning of the next class period. If the class is large and grading frequent quizzes is too burdensome, the questions can be designed with multiple-choice answers.

    References and Resources

    Many excellent web sites exist that contain educational resources and imagery for teaching about oceans. Two good ones to begin with are: