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Earth Surface 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 Earth Surface Processes are arranged in sequence for a session of Socratic questioning.

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Learning Goals

To develop an understanding of the ways Earth's surface is shaped by hydrologic, climatic and tectonic forces. To understand the origin of soils and the critical role the biosphere plays in their formation. To understand the role of the carbon cycle in Earth surface processes. To highlight the impact of humans on the landscape.

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. Excellent images and other educational resources 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

Sample questions arranged in sequence for Socratic questioning regarding Earth Surface Processes:

  • Describe some of the common landforms on Earth's surface and formulate a classification scheme that groups them according to how they were created?
  • What is weathering? Consider how weathering effects nutrient cycling?
  • Describe the relationship between geological and biological processes in the near surface environment?
  • What are soils? From your description, explain how they might form?
  • What is the difference between weathering and erosion?
  • Given enough time, will Earth ever erode until it is completely flat? Will there ever be a time when erosion stops?
  • Why do some streams look and behave differently on different parts of the landscape?
  • How is erosion along the coast different from erosion inland?
  • Do glaciers move? Explain?
  • How is carbon stored in the environment and why is this important?

  • Additional questions, and general answers to most questions, can be downloaded as a PDF file from Earth Surface Processes Questions and Answers (Microsoft Word 51kB Aug7 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 Earth Surface and Surface Processes fully, allow approximately 50 to 90 minutes of class time. Use the sample questions and answers as guidelines, allowing students to explore interesting avenues of inquiry related to the subject material.


    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 Earth's Surface and Surficial Processes. Some good sources to begin with are: