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Solar System Socratic Questions

Created by Robert Walter and Dorothy Merritts, Franklin & Marshall College (robert.walter@fandm.edu, dorothy.merritts@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 origins of the Universe and Solar System are arranged in sequence for a session of Socratic questioning and learning.

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Learning Goals

To be aware of scientific hypotheses regarding the origins of the Universe and Solar System. To recognize the types of evidence used to evaluate hypotheses regarding the Big Bang and formation of planetary systems from solar nebulae. To understand the role of gravity in forming massive objects throughout the universe.

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. Remarkable images of the Solar System and Galaxies are available at numerous web sites, and 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 origins of the Universe and Solar System:

  • What is the Universe, and what is the current view of how it came into being?
  • What are the basic forces that underpin the Universe, and what do these forces do?
  • What is the most dominant force in the Universe? Explain?
  • What evidence exists for the origin of the Universe? What observations can be made to support the current origin theory?
  • How old is the Universe, and what were the primordial materials from which the Universe formed?
  • What are Galaxies? How do they form and how many are in the Universe?
  • How did our Solar System form? What is the most likely hypothesis?
  • How old is our Solar System? How is this known?
  • Why is the age of the Solar System so much different from the age of the Universe?
  • What are meteorites? What do they tell us about the formation of Earth?
  • How old is Earth? How is this known?
  • Is the moon a planet? Why or why not?
  • Are all planets alike? Is Earth similar to or different from other planets in our Solar System? Explain.
  • Does water exist on any other planet in our Solar System? Would you expect to find water on Mars? Why or why not?
  • Will humans ever travel to another planet? Which one is the most likely target? What aspects of that planet make it the most likely target?
  • Additional questions, and general answers to most questions, can be downloaded as a PDF file from Solar System Questions and Answers (Microsoft Word 34kB Jul29 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 Solar System and Universe 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 the Solar System and Universe. Three good ones to begin with are: