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Solid Earth 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 solid Earth are arranged in sequence for a session of Socratic questioning.

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Learning Goals

To be aware of scientific hypotheses regarding the nature of plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. To recognize the types of evidence used to evaluate hypotheses regarding plate tectonics and mountain building. To understand fundamental aspects of the materials that compose the Earth, including minerals and rocks.

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. Images of rocks, minerals, and tectonic plates 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

Sample questions arranged in sequence for Socratic questioning regarding the Solid Earth:

  • How big is the Earth and what material is inside our planet?

  • What do we know about the interior of the Earth?

  • What is an earthquake? What causes them? Why are some stronger than others?

  • What is a fault? What are the different types of faults? What is the fundamental cause of the different types of faults?

  • What is plate tectonics?

  • What is a tectonic plate?

  • Why is continental crust so much thicker than oceanic crust?

  • When did plate tectonics begin on Earth, and is it still an active process today?

  • are the different types of plate boundaries and what geological features do they create?

  • What force(s) drive plate tectonics?

  • What are volcanoes? How do they form?

  • Does water exist on any other planet in our Solar System? Would you expect to find water on Mars? Why or why not?

  • Where does the heat come from to create lavas? Why, after 4.5 billion years, is the Earth not completely cooled?

  • What are the various processes that create mountain ranges?

  • What are rocks? What are the three major types of rocks and how does each type form?

  • What are minerals? Explain the various processes by which they form.

  • How is the surface of the Earth modified? Explain the various processes by which this modification occurs.

  • General answers for the first 11 questions are provided at Solid Earth Answers (Microsoft Word 63kB Jul16 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 questions on the Solid Earth fully, allow at least an entire 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 Solid Earth. Three good ones to begin with are: