In this episode of the Prep Period Podcast, attorney and educator Jennifer O’Hara reveals some teaching methods that might surprise most teachers. Namely, she discusses her unconventional approach to flexible grading methods and the Socratic method. Jennifer highlights how these methods intrinsically motivate students and have been effective in helping her students learn and prepare for work in the real world. Listen or watch now to learn more.
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[0:00] – Intro
[2:49] – What is the Socratic Method?
[3:58] – The *Modified* Socratic Method
[5:49] – The “O’Hara” Method
[16:13] – The Flexible Due Date Method
Brian Bean: [00:00:15]
Welcome to the Prep Period podcast. My name’s Brian Bean. I’m going to be your host, as usual. And in this episode, our guest is going to be my good friend, Jennifer O’Hara from Corning Community College. We’re going to be talking about a couple of different things. We’re going to talk about a unique way that she uses the Socratic method to really increase student engagement. It’s really cool what she does, as well as another cool thing. It’s kind of a it’s like a due date flexibility model that she’s developed. And I’m telling you is a straight-up game changer for teachers. You’re going to love it. I’m so excited to welcome my good friend, Jennifer.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:00:51]
Hello Brian, I’m happy to be here.
Brian Bean: [00:00:53]
Good. I’m happy to have you here, too. Now, before we dive in, first things first, let’s kind of get our customer- our customers?-, our listeners more familiar with you a little bit. So Jennifer O’Hara is an associate professor and department chair at Corning Community College. Real quick, where’s Corning?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:01:11]
It is in the southern tier of New York State. It’s south of Rochester and Buffalo, sort of in the middle.
Brian Bean: [00:01:17]
Ok. Awesome. Awesome. Did you know that I was a Buffalo Bills fan my whole life, by the way?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:01:21]
I’m sorry to hear that.
Brian Bean: [00:01:22]
I love them. I love them. And I’m not going to hold that common against you. So – department chair at Corning Community College, where she has been teaching in various capacities for the past 19 years. Miss O’Hara is also an attorney and she is currently a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University in my cohort.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:01:41]
Brian Bean: [00:01:42]
And which, by the way, did you bring any vandi swag? Like I brought my hat.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:01:46]
Oh, I didn’t. I’m sorry.
Brian Bean: [00:01:48]
All right. I’ll take my hat off so you don’t feel bad. Yeah. When I when I had Lauren on this for the episode with Lauren Bartholomae, she – we all wore vandi stuff.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:01:58]
I don’t walk around wearing vandi stuff.
Brian Bean: [00:02:00]
Well, you should every day, tell you what. So in addition to being a doctoral candidate at the greatest university on the planet, her other recent experiences includes the executive director at Chemung Shaiman. I pressed him on earlier and I still got it wrong. Chemung SPCA or the Society of the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals. Good for you. Good for that. That’s awesome.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:02:24]
Brian Bean: [00:02:24]
And then a columnist for the Elmira Star Gazette. So basically you do everything right?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:02:30]
I try to. Yeah,
Brian Bean: [00:02:32]
I Think that’s awesome. So way to make me feel unaccomplished.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:02:35]
Brian Bean: [00:02:35]
That makes me feel accomplished, I’ll tell you what.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:02:39]
You know that’s not true. You’re quite accomplished.
Brian Bean: [00:02:42]
One of these days, I’m just going to read my bio at the beginning. So people – So that you’ve heard about them, now you can hear about me.
Brian Bean: [00:02:49]
Well, hey, let’s dive in, because I’m super excited about this this today’s topic about the Socratic method in particular. And you said this to me before, that you like to use kind of a modified version of the Socratic method when you teach, so-
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:03:05]
Brian Bean: [00:03:06]
Just in case there are any listeners, hopefully not -they’re all educators. But just in case there are some that aren’t super familiar terminology-wise. What is the Socratic method? And then how do you modify it?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:03:20]
Sure. So traditionally, when you think of Socratic method, you think of Socrates, right, and the father of Western philosophy and his teaching method, and when it’s described in its purest form, what Socrates would do is give an opinion about something and then ask a question about it. And his students would discuss with him so that they could reach a new opinion or a new definition.
Brian Bean: [00:03:42] Hmm.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:03:43]
And the expectation in that model was that the students were quite learned. There were other philosophers or aspiring philosophers that had a high degree of knowledge coming to the table. So when you’re dealing with students, I teach at a community college.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:03:58]
But I also often teach in the high school classroom when I’m called in to do things on ethics and government and elections. And so the the expectations that I have of my students in these environments is not consistent with what Socrates had. And so I think to myself, how can I get my students engaged? Right. You I’m sure you know the research about students retaining things when they’re engaged in the classroom versus watching the lecture or the stage.
Brian Bean: [00:04:27]
You can’t even compare. It’s a completely different experience.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:04:31]
Right. The data is just too clear. So I have thought over the years and I’ve been doing this for 18 years in various forms. How can I use Socratic method? That’s the way I was taught in law school. It’s most commonly associated with law school in modern times.
Brian Bean: [00:04:44] Mm-hmm.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:04:45]
But do it in a way that my students don’t feel intimidated. So the way I approach it is my students will know what I’m talking about. And then they will I will ask them questions that an average person could answer to get the dialogue going or that are opinion based so that it’s a zero-sum game. Right. So that it’s low, low, low stakes.
Brian Bean: [00:05:07]
So even so, you’re assuming that they don’t know a lot about the topic per se. Any more than the average person off the street would know. And so you’re phrasing your questions to meet that level. Did I understand that right?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:05:20]
Absolutely. And then there are always learners in the classroom who are much more motivated, who do come to the table with the knowledge before the class, who have read the book, who have watched videos that I posted online. And I have I peppered questions into those students as well, so that I make sure that I’m getting the interaction from the students that have the higher knowledge. And also the ones that want to sit in the back of the room and disengage.
Brian Bean: [00:05:48] Yeah,
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:05:49]
I can give you an example of what a modified Socratic method looks like.
Brian Bean: [00:05:53]
Yeah. “The O’Hara method,” I’m going to trademark that.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:05:57]
So the first thing I do when students come in is I the first day of classes, I teach Socratic method to them. And what a better way to do it than to do it via Socratic method so they don’t even know what’s happening.
Brian Bean: [00:06:10]
What a novel idea you’re going to teach using the very methods that you’re teaching about.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:06:15]
Crazy. So I will say to the students, so one – one of the things I do is I go through a very painful exercise. Memorizing the names of my students and my classes are as big as 40, as small as 10. So it can be pretty painful. And I say to my students over and over again, “I know this is painful. Bear with me. It’s really important and you’ll see why.” Because I find that Socratic method works better when you can engage someone with their name rather than, “Hey, you.”
Brian Bean: [00:06:40] Oh, interesting.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:06:42]
Yeah. So so what I’ll do is I’ll say, “OK, so I teach Socratic method. Who knows what that is?” Pretty high-level question. I in my years of teaching may have had three students over the years who have known sort of what it is. But, no one says anything. Then I’ll back up and I’ll say, “OK, let me back up a second. Tell me what you know about classrooms you’ve been in.” Hands go up. Well, I’m in a class where the professor talks and we take notes, the teacher talks and we take notes. Hand goes up, I’m in a class where it’s all projects. We just do a bunch of projects. OK. Have you ever been in a class different from either of those? Anybody? People usually don’t say anything else. Usually those are the two kinds of-
Brian Bean: [00:07:21] Other two categories…
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:07:23]
Right. And so I’ll say, “what about the idea that if I’m going to teach you something instead of just saying it, I might go about it another way? Can you think of what I might be able to do?” And then it just clicks somehow people say, well, you could have us read about it and I say I could, right?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:07:41]
Another rule of mine is I never say, “no, you’re wrong.” I find a way to make it work. “You could. So if I’m having you read something, what might I do about that when you come into the classroom?” And then they’d inevitably say, oh, you’ll ask us questions about it? And I’ll say, “yeah, that’s right. I will ask you questions and you’ll give me the answers and your peers will learn.” Students go oh OK, yeah. And I’ll say, “I just taught you Socratic method using Socratic method.”
Brian Bean: [00:08:05] Hmm. I like it.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:08:06]
Yeah. They get the feel of the low stake.
Brian Bean: [00:08:09]
You remind me of – I had a I had a math teacher in college that I just loved and adored to the point where I literally I took every single math I could from that professor. I rearranged all of my schedule to make sure that if you taught the kind of math I had to take, I would take it from that gentleman. He was just a phenomenal teacher. And one of the things he used to say all the time is that he’s he’s not teaching us new math. He’s like, there’s nothing I’m going to teach you this new here because every math breaks down to addition and subtraction. Every single thing in math breaks down to that very thing. He said, “So ultimately, you already know how to do this. You just don’t realize it. So all I have to do is ask you the right questions in the right order, and you’ll discover that you already know how to do this. You just never thought about that way before.” And it just clicked with me and I loved it. It sounds like you’re taking kind of a similar, similar approach to it.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:09:04]
Yeah. And when you teach things like law and government, like I do, students often walk into the classroom expecting to be bored.
Brian Bean: [00:09:10] Yeah
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:09:11]
They don’t really know that -.
Brian Bean: [00:09:13]
I like I agree with you. Yeah, that sounds super boring. I would hate that.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:09:16]
Didn’t even challenge a little.
Brian Bean: [00:09:18]
Maybe I shouldn’t agree so fast to everything you say. That’s called podcast hosting 101 for you. For those of you out there wanting to do what I do. Right. All right. So sorry. Continue, tell me about your super boring class?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:09:32]
So my super boring class, which is not boring to me. And one of those things that happens in the classroom is my excitement about law and my excitement about government sort of rubs off on the students. But they come in before that happens, not knowing what to think of me, not knowing what to think of this class. And so it makes sense to me that your professor did that with math, because in my mind, early on in teaching, I was like, how am I going to get these students to care about what the speaker of the House does? Right.
Brian Bean: [00:09:58] Yeah.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:09:59]
Come up with some sort of, you know, crazy scenario that teaches what the speaker’s job would be in that scenario. And I have to tease it out of them using really intuitive Socratic questions rather than big ones.
Brian Bean: [00:10:14]
So as you talk and you describe this, I tell you, the thing I love about your methodology the most. Traditionalists- the Socratic method is almost like a flipped classroom. Traditionalists would say you’re going to go learn this. You need to become knowledgeable about the subject so that I can ask you questions to take you to the next level. But what you’re doing is you’re saying, you know what, everybody’s got an opinion, you know, and if they don’t have one already, they can formulate an opinion pretty quick. So you might only have to feed them a little bit of stuff, but then flip the script a little bit and start asking questions to root out that opinion. And that opinion might be the thing that gets them engaged for why they now care about it and why they now care to learn more about this thing that they now have an opinion about that they didn’t realize that they had before.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:11:03]
Right. Or that they knew something that mattered. One of the things I see happen is students will say something and it really will hit me as, wow, that’s great! And I’ll say, “that’s brilliant.” And you can – that student now is hooked, that student’s going to interact with me every single time because they’ve gotten validated. They trust me. And, you know, they’re in an environment where the topic isn’t something so esoteric as- as advanced calculus that they’re like, OK, well, I do know a little bit about the three branches of government. I do know a little bit about crimes. Right. And so I’m thinking of the two areas that I teach. So it really helps. And I’ve seen it even when I go into the high school classroom, one of the primary things I teach is ethics. There is a really specific structure to ethics teaching that if you haven’t read about it ahead of time, I don’t think you would come to the table understanding. And when I teach in the high schools, they aren’t assigned anything before I go in. And so when I go in, I have to approach it from when you are making decisions, what are you asking yourself? Right. That’s one of my first questions usually. And most people would say, well, what would you say? What would you be asking yourself if you were making a decision about something?
Brian Bean: [00:12:15]
You know – see – now, you’re in my wheelhouse now, because decision theory learning is is the entire crux of my teaching model. So any time you can put that at the forefront that’s – I’m on board there, and I love that idea. And also what you’re doing is you’re you’re taking no matter what the topic is, as we’re talking, I’m sitting here thinking about, yeah, you could do this in any kind of, you know, a core class or the CTE classes in particular, business and those other kind of courses. So many applications because. You make the topic, whatever it is that day about the student. You’re making it about the student. And I mean, you want to have student engagement, make it about them, Right?
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:13:02]
Right. So, for example, my students don’t walk into the class knowing what a tort is. Right. Most people think it’s, you know, something that you eat, right? But it’s a civil wrong. And so to teach them about it, you know, I might say to one of my students, you know, “Billy, when you came into class, did you park a car?” “Yeah, I did.” “Anyone else parked the car?” “Yeah, we all did.” “Did anyone have any problems when you’re parking your cars?” Inevitably, one student says, “you know, this one kid park really close to my car and it ticked me off.” And so we’ll go from there like, “well, what would you do if you ran into him? Well, what if he did this, and what if you did that…?” And we get into the elements of civil wrongs between people. Right. Like damaging their property or actually punching someone, because you’re ticked that they parked next to you. And so you use something really tangible to them to teach the elements of a civil wrong and the responsibility for it.
Brian Bean: [00:13:52]
So there’s a – there’s a strategy to it, like every teacher’s going to be like, Yeah, you’re going to ask questions, obviously, everybody knows, you ask questions. You try to get stuff out of the students. But there’s a there’s a strategy to it. It goes beyond just asking questions to try to lead into things. If you’re strategic about it and you try to find in advance, it seems that it would make sense. You’re trying to to prepare these and script these kind of things out in advance, but find ways to get the student to generate an opinion or have the student kind of share their insight or their outlook paradigm on whatever topic it is you’re talking about. Then you can use that to springboard into a deeper conversation that might introduce new content.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:14:36] Yes, absolutely.
Brian Bean: [00:14:37] I love it.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:14:38]
Yeah. And it isn’t – Yeah. When I’ve taught it in – in continuing education classes for teachers and I taught them how to do the method in the classroom, they inevitably said when I walked in, I thought, you know, am I really going to learn anything from this? I know Socratic method. But what I find out is exactly what you said, which is that they realize that you do have to prepare. You do have to think about it. You do have to know your students. I often have athletes in my classes. And so I will frequently use sports examples or, you know, questions about sports to drive at something else.
Brian Bean: [00:15:10]
Yeah, no. And another thing, even though we literally just got to talking about scripting it out and planning it out, and also it still seems like it’s very flexible. Like there’s a natural kind of flexibility to the way that the lesson can go, because, you know, you’re leaning heavily on the opinions of your students or their knowledge base and where they want to take it, you know, in what direction that they might want to take. And I think that’s so valuable. But at the same time, you know, like the idea of being flexible to a lot of teachers is kind of a double-edged sword, right? They’re constantly worrying about and they’re under all this pressure to get all of their required content. The state says you’ve got to cover this and you’ve got to cover that. You’ve got to get all that done. On top of that, they’ve got mounds of homework and things and assessments that they’ve got to grade. And it’s just it’s is this constant battle between, you know, sticking to a schedule as well as being flexible, sticking to the script, as well as being flexible.
Brian Bean: [00:16:13]
And I know we had talked earlier about or in the promo, we talked in the intro, we talked about how you have this concept of a flexible due date schedule that could help facilitate was – and it is very intriguing to me. So let me let’s dive in let’s shift gears a little bit and dive into that and tell me a little bit about how you do your due dates to what makes it so flexible.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:16:38]
Sure. So I developed this some time ago, looking at the struggles that some of my students and their pattern of work created and how the degree to which they would drop out of the class because they got overwhelmed and thought they could never catch up. So, you know, I’ve seen this with my own kids in their high school classes, where they the classes where there’s a little bit more flexibility, they tend to get the work done more than the classes where it’s rigid. The quality of the work is not quite as good. They’re just trying to get it done. So what I did was I developed a model where I said to my students at the beginning of the term, “here are the due dates for things.” I go through the whole thing. And I say, “this is when I think you should submit the work because it is most productive to the way you will learn the material and will help you perform better on the exams.”
Brian Bean: [00:17:28] Hmm.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:17:29]
And tell them, “That said, none of these are written in stone. If you hand something in late, not on the day it’s due, you don’t lose points for it coming in late. You could still hand it in. I will still grade it and get it back to you.”
Brian Bean: [00:17:43]
I think every one of our listeners would just – now they’re like, “what? She’s crazy!”
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:17:47]
Yeah, I know. But watch. So so then I will tell them, “And by the way, if you’re the kind of person…” If you do if you teach in quarters or, you know, in college, it’s a little bit more of a full semester or a half-semester. But I give them till the end of the unit or the end of whatever marking time. And I say, “if you’re a person who is actually a better learner when you do it all at once, then do it that way.” Right. And most people are like, “oh, this is definitely who I am because I don’t want to do this now.” But what students find is that there is also a kickback to getting the work done early. So once I tell them that and everyone’s relieved I say, “but one of the things you need to know is that if you do make the due dates and I give it back to you, you get a chance at a redo, you get a chance to correct the things you got wrong and give it back to me.”
Brian Bean: [00:18:37] Interesting.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:18:38]
Yeah, and so there’s a model, and I say if you don’t hand it in by the due date, you don’t get that opportunity and all you get is the raw document back.
Brian Bean: [00:18:45]
That’s interesting. That’s brilliant.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:18:48]
Yeah. And as thank you. And as a result, I don’t have what most people who like you said, who said she’s nuts. Fear in this model, which is that you’re going to get eight thousand papers to grade the very last day before grades are due. Right. That’s not what happens, because at least two-thirds of the class wants that extra bite of the apple.
Brian Bean: [00:19:06] Yeah, well-
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:19:08]
I don’t have to spend time listening to excuses because I say, “look, you’re not required to submit it by today.”
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:19:13]
“But my grandfather has Covid…” Which was the big one this term. Some students forgot that their grandfather already had Covid. I had that a couple of times this term. I say, “I understand that, you don’t have to get it in on time. You just get it in when you can. But you won’t have the rewrite.” And it makes it much easier in dealing with that.
Brian Bean: [00:19:29]
Yeah. No, I can imagine so. I’m sitting there thinking back of a few of my students when I was in that high school – when I was in the classroom. And I can and I know I could I could make a list off the top of my head a mile long of the students that would value the ability to to redo their work, to gain missed points, enough that that would be a significant incentive to turn it in on time. And yet those that don’t… I’m sitting here trying to align with accommodation’s. Right. And those who would need more time, they’re getting more time. Right. Those who need a do-over, they have an opportunity to do a do-over and whatnot. There might be a few exceptions you’d have to address here and there. But I think it’s brilliant. And it’s – like most brilliant things is when you hear about it seems so simple. You’re like, “why didn’t I think of that before?”, but that-
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:20:27]
And I’m pretty strict about, you know, because I’m flexible, I’m strict, right? I’m strict about that deadline. You hand it in the day after, you don’t get that rewrite. Right. But it’s not going to lose any points. I’m you know, I have my flexibility, but then my strictness in it to keep me sane.
Brian Bean: [00:20:43]
Oh, I love it. I love it. Well -.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:20:45]
One of the things that happens, too, is that particularly with the college students, if I have a student who’s going to walk in on day one and get a C no matter what I do. Right. Yeah. If they’re going to – or maybe a D or even an F – they’re going to wait until the end and do the work at the end because they’re not going to worry about it.
Brian Bean: [00:21:02] If at all.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:21:02]
The quality is going to be the same. And I have seen that. I have not seen that my bell curve has moved from this practice. But what I have seen is that fewer students are dropping the class and getting no credit for it or are failing after it’s too late to drop because they can’t get the assignments in. I have more students persisting, which was important to me. And that was really the whole goal.
Brian Bean: [00:21:26] Yeah.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:21:26]
Yeah, and one of the funny things that happened to me when I was talking about it at a training for teachers, one of my faculty colleagues said to me, “This – this is crazy. This is not the real world. What are they going to do when they get out to the real world?” And I said, “then tell me how this is not the real world? You don’t make a deadline at work. That’s it. You’re fired.” And I said, “that’s not been my experience. I have never worked for a job where if I went into my boss and said, ‘I’m not going be able to get this done by then, I need a little more time.’ The boss has said, ‘no, you’re fired.’ But they might say, ‘I’m sorry, it has to be in by this time,’ and you might kill yourself and get it done.” But most of the time, you can have the flexibility, but you’re not going to get a raise. So that’s the difference between-
Brian Bean: [00:22:09]
There’s a consequence. It’s just not-
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:22:11]
Right. You’re not going to get fired, but you’re not also going to be a high performer. I think I’m better teaching students how to be intrinsically motivated by having the options.
Brian Bean: [00:22:20]
And that’s what I like about it the most, that I think right there is the key into why it’s going to be effective. It’s because you are taking what is typically an extrinsic motivating mechanism. You know, your grade or docking you points if it’s late or all these different kind of things, and you’re replacing that with an intrinsic mechanism by giving them the choice to be in control of what path they go down. You are still very strict, nonflexible, if you will, about the parameters of those paths, but you’re letting them choose. And so those who who identify and say there is value to me in the ability to redo that assignment. Now I want to do this, they are intrinsically motivated because they have defined the value. They’ve recognized that and they’re going to go and pursue that on their own. It’s brilliant. It’s it’s brilliant in its simplicity and it’s brilliant in its execution. And I love it.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:23:27] Thank you.
Brian Bean: [00:23:28]
Thank you. So with that, thank you so much for coming on to our program. Some fantastic info for our for our teachers. I can’t sing your praises enough, as you know. And thank you very much.
Jennifer O’Hara: [00:23:44]
And likewise. Thanks for having me. I appreciate what you’re doing for educators and students.
Brian Bean: [00:23:49]
Ok, what another, just a great episode, I want to think, Jen, for coming on to the show. I love her concept of using the Socratic method slightly differently to really explore and allow the student’s opinions on matters to be the gateway and the entry point to new learning, instead of only using that method for things that students are already familiar with. I love that new integration and I love her idea of allowing the the due dates to have that kind of flexibility to really kind of take advantage of intrinsic motivation. So fantastic stuff. So, as always, if you or anyone, you know, would be interested in being a guest on our podcast, we’re going to change up instead of emailing me, please reach out to [email protected] that’s P-R-E-P-P-E-R-I-O-D-@stukent-dot-com or just click the link in the description. Thanks, as always, for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the Prep Period Podcast on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, pretty much really wherever you get your podcasts and more. As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week!
Jennifer O’Hara is an Associate Professor and Department Chair at Corning Community College, where she has been teaching in various capacities for the past 19 years. Ms. O’Hara is also an attorney. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University. Her other recent experience includes Executive Director of the Shehmung SPCA (Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals) and columnist for the Elmira Star Gazette.