Socratic Seminars:

I have been to several different AVID trainings in the past year. Many of the skills that I learned have been great additions to my chemistry classroom. The use of interactive journals has greatly decreased the time that I spend grading student work and has encouraged students to be more organized and teaching students how to close read an article has been a lifesaver! Though the use of Socratic Seminars always sounded great, I was never quite sure how to incorporate them in my Chemistry classroom. And to be quite honest, I was afraid to try something new. However, after findings some great texts about ionic and covalent bonds I was given the inspiration to incorporate a Socratic Seminar with close reading and a lab.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

According to Mangrum (2010), “Socratic seminars are structured conversations about selected texts and the important ideas imbedded within them” (p. 41). These are student centered conversations where students start a discussion about either an idea or a question and usually have texts that they can cite within the conversation. The conversation is very structured. Students can respond to someone else’s point or idea by saying “I agree with the point that you made (restate the point), and I would like to add… ” or they can say “I disagree with the statement that you made (restate the point) because… “. This structured conversation requires students to be careful listeners because they want to make sure that they always restate what they are responding to. During this conversation students are also expected to cite textual evidence. They can directly quote a piece of text, including the author’s name and the title (possible even the paragraph number if all students have the same text), or they can summarize part of a text, again, make sure that they include the author’s name and title of the article. The biggest part of a socratic seminar is that this is a STUDENT conversation. What does that mean? The teacher only starts the conversation with a questions or statement and the students keep the conversation going for a given amount of time with out teacher’s input.  You may assign a moderator for the discussion. The job of this student is to keep the students on track, ask questions that get the students discussing important points, and to make sure that one person doesn’t dominate the conversation (we all have those students who love to hear themselves talk!).

Benefits of Socratic Seminars:

According to Chowning (2009), “In these kinds of discussions, students can apply their understanding of science content, practice articulating a position, and collectively build a deeper understanding of a complex topic” (p.36).

  1. Creates authentic learning environment: Authentic learning environment occurs when students are involved in real-world problems. In the real-world, scientist are not given instructions on how to perform a certain lab, often they rely on scientific journals and discussions with others in order to come up with a lab procedures that might work. In this activity students do just that. Using scholarly sources students devise their own lab procedures through structured communication and collaboration.
  2. Improved scientific literacy: According to Reiners and Schumacher, “the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made through human activity” (p. 2174). Scientific literacy is a big part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They stress the impotence of students being able to read complex texts, draw conclusions, and make opinions. Using Socratic seminar model allows students the opportunity to practice this important skills.
  3. Encourages students to articulate their understandings: Often, students have a hard time taking what they read and putting it into their own worlds. This can be even more difficult with a scientific text because often times it involves many different ideas that are new and foreign that students have no previous knowledge or connection to. The use of Socratic seminar encourages students to try to put these ideas in their own worlds. During the discussion students are encouraged to put forth new ideas and question the texts. These skills allow students to fully grasp a text or topics being discussed and provides them multiple view points to draw from.
  4. Stimulates students questioning: One of the most powerful tools students can learn is how to ask the right question. My favorite (or not so much) is the student who is lost and asks me to explain a concept. My first response to them is to come up with a question. What are they exactly stuck on? If they are working through a word problem, are they have trouble understanding the problem? Picking out their known variables? Plugging the numbers into an equation or maybe choosing the right equation? During a socratic seminar students are encouraged to ask questions in order to improve their understanding of the material. If they are uncertain about what another student said or possible unsure about how to interpret a section of the text students need to put forth their question to the group so that it can be discussed and addressed.
  5. Allow students a more in-depth understanding of the content: All students come to the discussion with a different perspective on the material. The relationship that one student might have to the material will no doubt be different than what the person next to them thinks. Even though they might be right, their own life experiences create different connections. By sharing these connections with a group students get multiple ways of looking at one problem or idea. The more connections that a student makes to the material the more likely they will understand it on a deeper and more meaningful level.
  6. Encourages students to use their resources and each other: I have found that often times students fail to use their resources they have on hand because they feel that if they don’t know something it is easy to ask the teacher to get their answer. However, it is important to move students away from this thinking.  A teacher will not be there to answer their questions when they are working on homework or trying to study and a teacher won’t be there when they are trying to learn something new for a difficult class or a job. What will always be there are important skills such as using their available resources, reaching out to peers, and continuing to struggle with the material until they get it. During a Socratic seminar a teacher is just an observer, students are required to rely on each other as a resources.

Methodology :

Day 1:

Students were first introduced to the idea of a Socratic seminar. About half of the class had done a Socratic seminar in History or English, which was extremely beneficial to the overall process. I explained that we would be doing the socratic seminar Fishbowl style (see diagram 1). Students on the inside of the fishbowl would be having the discussion while students on the outside would be observing and filling out the observation rubric (I used the first page of this PDF). I explained that students needed to participate in the discussion are least four different times. At least one time needed to involve citing a source from the text and one needed to be a question.

diagram 1: Fishbowl Seating Arrangement


I had three articles that I got from Adventures in ISTEM on TPT. This reading came with three articles, Cornell notes, and a worksheet for each handout. The articles were assigned in class. Students were given the period (90 minutes) to read the articles, discuss with their group, and complete the Cornell notes (I didn’t assign the worksheets). I made sure that students knew that these were their ONLY notes that they were going to able to use for the Socratic seminar. I told them that they needed to read them carefully, make notes, ask questions, and be prepared to discuss them the following day.

Day 2:

The following day students came in with their articles annotated. I explained that the goal of this discussion was to discuss what an ionic and covalent bond were and how you would test a substance would contain ionic or covalent bonds. Students needed to come up with a lab procedure that they agreed upon, and the following day they would be presented with 10 different unknown samples that they had to identify as being ionic or covalent (the article does discuss properties of each). The first group of students were on the inside of the fishbowl and they discussed covalent bonds while the other half of the students were on the outside of the fishbowl and were assigned one person to observe. After about 10-15 minutes the groups switched position and they discussed ionic bonds. By the end of the period students had a good understanding about the difference between ionic and covalent bonds and they had a list of supplies and procedures for the lab the follow day.

For the last portion of the period students were required to write out their procedures and create a data table for the following day.

Day 3:

The needed supplies were set out along with 10 unknown compounds. Students tested their compounds and identified whether they were ionic or covalent based off their findings.

Day 4:

Students were broken up into two different groups. Group one was assigned unknown #1-5 while group two was assigned #6-10. The students set up in the fishbowl style Socratic seminar again. They were given the same rubric that was used during the previous discussion. I explained that students needed to compare their data for their assigned unknowns and come to consensus about whether they were ionic or covalent. If there was a discrepancy they needed to discuss what errors could have occurred. Once they had an agreement I gave them the actual bond present in the unknown and the group then discussed what led them to the right answer or why they might have the wrong answer. The groups switched and the students continued to discuss the second half of the unknowns.

After the discussion students wrote a one-page conclusion about their findings of the lab. They also wrote about if they liked the Socratic seminar and if they felt it was helpful. Students turned in each rubric of the Socratic seminar, their data table, and their conclusion.

My Observations:

  1. Students discussion were a lot more productive than I imagined they would be:  I don’t want to say that underestimated my students, but I did! Their discussions were much better than I imagined. Students were able to come up with the procedures all on their own. They identified melting point, solubility, and conductivity as three ways to test ionic and covalent compounds. Their analysis of their errors was more thorough than any lab write-up. Students had a great discussion about how some compounds might be covalent according to two tests but one test pointed in the direction of being ionic. Overall, I was very impressed!
  2. Some of the quiet students participated: Some of my quiet students really did a great job in participating. I think the structure of the conversation, knowing how to respond, and having a text to cite made it easier for them to participate.
  3. While… Some students did not participate at all: I had about one or two students in each class who still didn’t participate at all. The students who didn’t participate were some of my older students (juniors or seniors in a class of predominately sophomores). These are also the students who usually feel that everything that we do in class is unnecessary and below them.
  4. The majority of students enjoyed it and really took responsibility for their learning: Students really took ownership for learning, more than I had seen in previous activities within the class. In the end, about 90% of the students said that they would want to do it again and they felt like they had a deeper level of understanding about ionic and covalent bonds.
  5. Required little prep time on my part: After finding the required resources online, this was very minimal effort on my part. I found the articles on TPT (link above) and the rubric online (link above). After they decided on the procedures I put out many of the materials for the following day. Other than some simple instructions, this was an entirely student-centered and student led lesson.



Chowning, J.T. (2009). Socratic seminars in science class. Science Teacher. 76(8). 36-41.

Mangrum, J.R. (2011). Sharing practice through socratic seminars. The Phi Delta Kappan. 91(7). 40-43.

Reiners, C. & Schumacher, A. (2013). Designing authentic learning environments in chemistry lessons: paving the way in pre-service teachers education. Science & Education. 22(9). 2173-2191.


Visualizing Chemistry: Using Simulations within the Classroom

Chemistry is a challenging topic to learn, no matter what age you are. Trust me, I hear it all the time from my students. “I don’t understand!” “This is too difficult!” “I am just not a ‘science’ person.” One of the biggest challenges for students, I believe, is not being able to connect what they see in the lab to what is actually occurring on an atomic level. Yes, doing a flame test to show students how different chemicals can create different colors is very pretty and students are amused, but I see their eyes start to gloss over when I try to explain that this is due to electrons becoming exciting, moving to higher energy levels, and then relaxing back down. I am not the best artist on the whiteboard. Trying to draw diagrams to explain these ideas ends up looking more like some modern abstract piece of artwork than a scientific explanation. So, when words and drawings aren’t enough to help bridge the gap in student understanding, computer simulations are the answer.

What are simulations?

Computer simulations (also known as virtual labs) are either online programs or software that allow students to observe what is occurring on a microscopic level. These simulations are dynamic and allow students to manipulate various settlings in order to see how changes, such as increasing temperature, might have on the system. According to  Gvozdenk and Rodrigues (2011) “it is argued that multimedia technology affords an opportunity to better visualise complex relationships often seen in chemistry” (p.27) There are many different simulations available for free online for students to use. Here are a just a few:

PhET – Interactive computer simulations by the University of Boulder Colorado. Includes simulations for all ages for Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, and more!

Chemistry Solutions – From the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, there are simulations for the chemistry classroom that range in topics from Nuclear Chemistry to Thermodynamics.

Merlot Simulations – Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching provides simulations (as well as MANY other technology/digital tools for the classroom) that range in topics and levels of difficulty.

ChemCollective – A collection of digital tools and resources by Carnegie Mellon. These include simulations that can be searched by level of difficulty, topic, and type.

ChemReaX – Contains rigorous virtual labs for students at the AP level or for undergraduates.

There are many other websites that can be used, these are just a few that offer more than one possible simulation for the classroom.

Why use simulations?

Our students are technology driven individuals. It is easy to see that technology plays a large role in their lives, whether they are communicating with their friends and family, sharing pictures on SnapChat or Instagram, play games against people on the other side of the globe, or just browsing the internet for the latest and greatest. Simulations engage students in learning complex ideas and concepts with the use of technology. According to Sandoval (2011) “Simulations allow computer savvy teenagers to revel in their natural habitat of cyber space whilst learning about complex scientific concepts.” (p. 45)

As mentioned before, simulations allow us to bridge the gap of understanding from what students see in real life to what is occurring on an atomic level.

“Despite extensive use of physical labs in K-12 science classrooms, research demonstrates that students using physical labs alone often have difficulty developing understanding of complex con- cepts (Hofstein and Lunetta 2004). Hands-on, physical labs do not typically provide visualizations or representations of phenomena, existing at scales too large or small to be directly observed, which can contribute to student misunderstanding”

Chao, Chiu, DeJaegher, and Pan (2015) p. 16

Simulations create an authentic learning environment within the classroom. Authentic learning is a common phrase in almost every profession development that I have attended in the past two years. And yes, it is a bit scary. Authentic learning shifts the learning from being teacher focused and teacher lead to being student focus and student driven. (wait… you mean I have to give up control!?! Students are in charge?! Oh no!) It requires students to use their own understandings to create new connections to the material and is based off of real world situations. Simulations are a great way to implement authentic learning within the curriculum. Many of the simulations (my favorite being PhET) has a teacher portion that provides inquiry based lessons and handouts for students. With a few directions on how to use the simulations students can quickly be on their way to learning complicated concepts on their own.

Simulations, also, allow us to better meet Next Generation Science Standards within the classroom. NGSS moves away from students memorizing elements and equations to having students understand the concepts behind the phenomenon. These standards also require students to understand and construct models to demonstrate their understandings, plan and conduct experiments, and use technology as a tool to gain insight. Simulations help students meet these standards while gaining a deeper level of understanding about the underlying concepts.

How to choose a simulation?

As you saw above, there are MANY different simulation options out there. So how do you choose which one to use? There are several important questions that you need to ask yourself before getting started:

  1. How much direction is required to get students set up? Some of these simulations are a little more complicated than others. Some require almost no directions, they are easy to use and manipulate, while others might require a little more direction or some basic chemistry concepts before students get started on their own. Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 1.18.53 PM.pngThis PhET simulation (above) is called pH Scale: Basic. And that is exactly what it is. It is fairly basic. The controls are easy to see and manipulate. Students can easily, with out any direction, pull the handles on the faucet at the top and bottle to see that one lets water in and one lets water out. Students can use the dropper to add different chemicals and then use the green sensor read the pH. Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 1.21.20 PM.pngOn the other hand, this simulation by ChemReax is a little more complicated. Students need to be familiar with titrations before they do this simulation. It is important that students are able to identify the different variables and fill them in correctly. Though it might require a little more work and a deeper level of understanding, they are extremely valuable tools!
  2. What kind of technology does your school offer? I am very fortunate to have 16 computer stations within my classroom. Unfortunately, it took me a little bit of time to realize that not all the computers were up to date with Java or some of the websites were blocked (why? I am not sure). I learned this the hard way. My school had different settings on my student computers versus my computer. While I was lesson planning, I was able to get the simulation to work on my computer. However, when the day came for my students to work on the simulation on their computers I realized that the Java had not been updated and students couldn’t access the simulation. Some of the simulations use Java, some require you to download an application, and some use HTML5. So, the moral of the story, make sure that you are able to get it working with the technology that you have available.
  3. Does it really meet your needs? When I first started use simulations, I think I went a little too simulation crazy. I used them as often as possible! But I soon realized, however, was that some of the simulations didn’t really serve the purpose that I needed them to serve. I also realized that even though these simulations incorporated the use of technology within the classroom, some topics were better taught the good old fashion way. If I want students to understand the basic information about pH should I use a PhET simulation (like the one above) or should I create a lab where students are testing the pH in real life.
  4. Is it just a game? Some of these simulations are fun… maybe a little too fun. What I mean by this is that some of the simulation function a little too much like a game and students will often miss the main idea behind the simulation. Instead of observing a careful titration reaction and paying attention to the interaction between the acid and base, students were just going to town and blowing right past the equivalence point and seeing to what extreme they could take it. I love that students are able to have fun with the simulation, but it is also extremely important that they are getting the fundamental ideas and concepts down, as well.

How to incorporate simulations?

So, how do you incorporate simulations within the classroom? There are many different ways that simulations can be used. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Use as a demonstration: sometimes setting up a wet lab demonstration is complicated and very time consuming. Simulations can be a great way to demonstrate a chemical phenomenon without all the mess. These can then be used to help jump start a discussion and have students talking about what is happening on a atomic/molecular level.
  2. Use as inquiry based activity: This is a great way to have students start thinking about an important concept before you even teach it! Give students a worksheet and have them discover and come up with a hypothesis about the phenomenon and then discuss their findings as a class. It is amazing what they can come up with when they work together. Often, students will be able to come up with an explanation very close the actual reasoning. The boost of encouragement allows them to see that they can learn these complicated concepts!Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 1.52.14 PM.pngWhy not have students come with their own explanation about how solid, liquids, and gases differ? Or have them experiment and come up with different ways to change from one phase to another.
  3. Replace a lab: Sometimes you don’t always have the lab equipment necessary or you just ran out of that one chemical that you need. Simulations are a great way to have students still perform a laboratory activity, without the mess and time. You can also have students do a lab write up, record their data in a table or lab notebook, and discuss their findings and errors.
  4. Perform Lab along side with a simulation: “wet” labs are a vital part of learning. Students need to be able to work with chemicals and equipment in real life, and their is no way a simulation can replace the importance of a hands-on lab activity. However, by performing a lab side-by-side with a simulation students will be able to learn those important skills as well as observing what is happening on a microscopic level with the simulation. Students can perform a titration along side with a titration simulation and compare their data. Were their calculations right? What did they do wrong? What is the difference between an ideal situation (simulation) and a real life situation (wet lab)?

Final thoughts…

Simulations are great tools to use within the classroom. They allow students to link what they see with the underlying atomic/molecular behavior. The chemical world is too small to see, which is one of the reasons why many students have a difficult time understanding these ideas. Allowing students the use simulation is like allowing them to use an electron microscope, students are able to see the atomic interactions and create a new level of understanding.

Purpose of using simulations:

  1. Simulations as a technique: Investigate the detailed dynamics of a system
  2. Simulations as a heuristic tool: Develop hypotheses, models and theories
  3. Simulations as a substitute for an experiment: Perform numerical experiments
  4. Simulations as a tool for experimentalists: Support experiments
  5. Simulations as a pedagogical tool: Gain understanding of a process

Hartman, 2005, p. 6



Chao, J., Chui, J.L., DeJaegher, C.J., & Pan, E.A. (2015). Sensor-augmented virtual labs: using physical interactions with science simulations to promote understanding of gas behaviors. Journal of Science Education and Technology. 23(1). 16-33. DIO: 10.1007/s10956-015-9574-4

Gvozdenko, E. & Rodrigues, S. (2011). Student engagement with science simulations: aspects that matter. Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal. 1(4). 27-43.

Hartmann, S. (2005). The world as a process: simulations in the natural and social sciences. PhilSci Archive. Retrieved on: 25 July 2017.

Sandoval, C. (2011)Computer simulations in physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. Teaching Science. 57 (2). 45-46.