Pedagogy in Action > Library > Socratic Questioning > Socratic Questioning Examples > Are Viruses Alive: Sample Socratic Questions

Are Viruses Alive: Sample Socratic Questions

By Monica Bruckner and George Rice, Montana State University, Bozeman. Based on MLER website:Are Viruses Alive? by George Rice ( and
This material was originally developed through Microbial Life Educational Resources
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Questions regarding the characteristics of life, with emphasis on viruses, are arranged in sequence for Socratic questioning.

Learning Goals

  • To understand the definition and uniqueness of life and its complexities
  • To examine what characteristics constitute a living organism
  • To recognize the extent of the role viruses play in the movement and molding of life as we perceive it today

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. This activity is based on the "Looking for Thermal Viruses in Yellowstone National Park" Microbial Observatory, part of the SERC Microbial Life project. Hence, this module may supply images and background information for instructors and students. Excellent general images and other educational resources are also available at numerous web sites, such as Microbial Life - Educational Resources (MLER), and add significant impact to this topic during class discussions. Some examples are given below in References and Resources.

Description and Teaching Materials

Sample questions arranged in sequence for Socratic questioning regarding whether viruses are alive are listed below. These questions are based on the Are Viruses Alive? website (part of MLER) by George Rice.

  • What is life? Describe attributes of life that make it distinctive from other parts of the Earth system, such as minerals, water, or light.
  • What is a virus, what qualities do viruses possess that are characteristics of life (from above question), what qualities set them apart from the classic definitions of life?
  • Is a virus a living entity? Why or why not? Support your answer with ideas from the previous questions.
  • If you define a virus as a living entity, what are the limits of life? Discuss what qualities must be present for something to be considered alive.
    (For additional discussion information regarding size constraints of organisms, see the Nanobes and Nanobacteria web page).
  • If a virus is not defined as living, what is it? How does it reproduce? How have viruses evolved through time?

Teaching Notes and Tips

Tips: Prepare students for discussion by having them read credible documents about viruses and the characteristics of life (e.g. peer-reviewed papers, textbooks, etc.). Have students take notes on their readings so that they can use evidence to support their ideas during the activity. Helpful resources can be found under the References and Resources section of this page.

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 about the characteristics of life fully, allow at least a full class period of 50 to 90 minutes.


During and after this Socratic questioning activity, students should be able to use appropriate terminology and integrate background readings to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the characteristics of life and its complexities
  • Apply these characteristics to assess if viruses should be considered living
  • Recognize the extent of the role viruses play in the movement and molding of life as we perceive it today

Student responses should be supported by evidence from credible sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles, textbooks, meeting proceedings, etc.

Another measure of success for this Socratic questioning activity is general student feedback-this may include comments made by students regarding the activity itself, if students continue discussing/debating the topic after or outside of class time, or if students contribute to the discussion with their own thoughtful questions (during the activity itself, subsequent class periods, or outside of class).

References and Resources

Are Viruses Alive? (part of the Microbial Life Educational Resources project).
This site includes helpful links to related external (non-MLER) sites.