Cold Call

Are you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss a problem that can arise with classroom dynamics: the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with anxiety.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

Image by Sigurd Decroos


40 thoughts on “Cold Call

  1. Hmm…I’m sympathetic to the kids who are just terrified by the constant possibility of having to answer with no notice. I was one of them once.

    By the time I got to college, it wasn’t that I was nervous to speak in class; it was that often, I needed processing time. Just because a student doesn’t have an answer *right at that moment* doesn’t mean they aren’t mastering the material, just that they quite possibly need time to chew it over and crystallize what they think.

    I think it can be useful, depending on the class, but putting the shyest kids or those who just think differently into a constantly defensive mode by demanding immediate answers can backfire badly.


    1. Chavisory:
      This has always been my thinking, which is why I usually “cold call” only when students have discussed and/or prepared answers. I wonder, though, if it would be a useful tool for reviewing material they really, really should know. For example, if we’ve already discussed setting and I’ve explained the three main aspects of setting for them and they’ve practiced identifying those aspects of setting in a story or two, is it reasonable for me, a couple of classes of later, to randomly ask Jimmy to fire off the three aspects of setting?


        1. I like the difference here–“cold-calling” vs. “reasonable pressure to keep up.” We don’t want to necessarily put them on the spot, but class time should not be an excuse to just check out, either.


  2. I love to cold-call, but the questions are usually open-ended, so that if I get a watery response, I can gently prod with related, more direct questions until I get an answer. Just this morning, we were reading letters written in 1914 by author and social activist Olive Schreiner. I asked, “If we could bring Olive Schreiner back to life, would you or would you not like to meet and talk with her? Why?” I had no trouble eliciting substantial answers even from unprepared students. Actually right on the spot, I considered making it a written classroom exercise but balked only because I am already overworked. I might do it, however, for my afternoon session for the same course.


    1. I generally get the most involvement from open-ended questions like that. For instance, they seem to really enjoy interpreting art and music. There are often not right or wrong answers, so it is interesting to get everyone’s view.


  3. “I needed processing time. Just because a student doesn’t have an answer *right at that moment* doesn’t mean they aren’t mastering the material, just that they quite possibly need time to chew it over and crystallize what they think.” Yes. yes. yes. I can’t agree more. This is indeed what I have found over the years with my students.

    I was told in my first years of teaching, perhaps even in my teaching classes, that silence in a classroom (the wait time between the asking of a question and the getting of an answer) is very necessary even though it at first feels uncomfortable. I’ve been learning to not be uncomfortable with it, to let it hang for a bit.

    In my elementary classrooms, since the faster students are often also most active–either in calling out or in waving their hands wildly at me to be called on–I have found this technique to work well:
    1) I ask a question, often one for which they need to do a little searching before answering.
    2) the question comes with the instruction that when they have found the answer they raise their hand (or look at me–I use this one often in place of hand waving) to let me know they’ve found it and are ready with the answer they think is best.
    3) When I have many hands up, including many of the hands of those that are not the fastest draw in the west, I call on someone that may not usually volunteer.

    I found this tactic to work well in my middle school classrooms, too, especially for those who were shyer. The shyer ones often wait to answer until they are sure that they are correct, so this technique allows them to be prepared and also encourages them to step out even if they may not be completely sure of themselves. Knowing them and their conscientiousness, I am confident for them that they have something good to contribute.

    For the ones that would rather talk first and loudest, I ask them to listen to the answer given to see how it matches their own answer. For my elementary students, I have them give me the “me-too” sign (I think I use the sign language for “yes”) if they had the same answer. That way they can still participate. This also gives me a gauge of how much of the class had similar answers.

    In elementary, the students who have the right answers will often have the same ones with little extra to add. However, for older classes, starting in middle school, I sometimes conducted a discussion format in which other students could either add to what had been answered or could contradict what had been answered. Either response required support from the text or life or whatever.


    1. ATWB:
      I love this approach. I think I do variations on this, although not systematically. For example, last class we had five tasks to do. Students were divided into ten groups, and two groups were working on each task. When the time came to reveal answers, I asked one group to write an answer on the board and then asked the other group who worked on the same task to explain the first group’s answer and add to or correct it. It was a very effective method and everyone in the class seemed very engaged. This kind of collaboration is always so heartening.


    2. I often do things like this as well. I might start out by stating, “Today I want to hear from some of you quiet ones. If you haven’t had an opportunity to comment this week, I would love to hear from you today.” This usually works in spurts. Most of the active commenters get the hint and take the backseat for a while. When I do this I often hear some of the most insightful comments! But it does not last forever…..

      I love the idea of the “me-too” sign. I can probably think of more ways to involve others like that. Many of my fellow teachers use “i-clickers.” They say this gives more people more opportunities to participate.


      1. Damommachef: I’ve been thinking about clickers too. Like many gadgets, though, the trouble it takes to set them up seems to me to outweigh their benefit – I’d love to hear from people who’ve used them.


        1. It also adds to the students’ costs. Right now the technology is not available in my classroom, and so I wonder if I would use them enough to justify the cost to both my department and my students. I would love to be able to use them for a semester on some kind of trial basis, but as far as I know, there really isn’t a way to do that.


  4. Finding that balance between volunteers and cold-calling is a challenge. When I was in the classroom, I did much as you did. I would call from the roster at the start of the term to learn names, and I would give time for preparation before being too demanding. But I also told the students from the beginning that I expected them to respond X number of times throughout the semester or week, etc. If not today, tomorrow–and I kept track. They did too. And when I would say to those with raised hands, “I’ve heard from you all before. I need to hear from someone else” I would usually get a new volunteer. Some students were just shy in class, but often were more verbal in emails or group chats. At times, I could then, say, “Billy, share that point you made online in the chat room–it raised some useful questions” or whatever.

    Often the best tip to generate more class discussion is to allow silence–count to 10 if needed, 15 or 20. It can be nerve-wracking but it gives processing time. I was told by an educational pyschologist that refrasing the question–which I used to do, thinking it would help–could make it worse for some students who had processing problems. “What was the essay’s thesis?” might be the first question and the student starts processing. Then I say, “What was the main idea?” thinking it is the same thing basically, but for some students, they stop processing the first answer and start over with the second version of the question.

    On your former teacher’s advice: Some students do need more time to process and the on-the-spot demand can be devastating. In one documentary I saw years ago that was helping teachers and parents understand what it was like to have a learning disability, the presenter reminded all that those with learning disabilities often are the ones who need more time to prepare and process. What he would do for specific students who were often scared of the on-the-spot call is alert them in some way before the call–so they could participate and learn over time they could do it. The “notices” were things like ask the question while standing in front of that student’s desk who had already been directed to sit up front–their arrangement was if he were right there, she needed to answer but he would wait (through some class detail) for the answer so she could collect her thoughts. The other students did not know. He at times would say in a one-on-one session before class, “Here are three major questions that will come up this week–be prepared to address them, I may call on you if you do not volunteer.” Not every student who does not speak up is learning disabled and not all learning disabled need the extra processing time and would thus warrant some sort of special arrangement, but if it could help one specific student, great.


    1. These are all such great techniques. I especially like the idea of asking a student to share something he said in another context earlier. I often walk around during group work and, when someone comes up with something insightful, I say, “I’m going to ask you to share that with the class in a bit.” Another trick I’ve considered using, when a student comes up with something great during group work, is to point to another, seemingly disengaged student in her group and say, “Chris, in a few minutes, I’m going to ask you to share Emily’s idea with the class. Emily and others, please make sure Chris is clear on the concept.” I haven’t tried this one yet, but I may pull it out this week.


    2. I think the “waiting” is especially important. Not all the students are going to come up with the right answers immediately. I usually let the “talkers” comment early on but then “put them on mute” once they have spoken two or three times. When this happens, the quieter kids will usually start speaking up. I also call on the kids who I feel aren’t paying attention. I know class participation should not be seen as a punishment, but the embarrassment of not being able to answer (with a certain type of student obviously) will often force them to be engaged. I think “cold-calling” is okay, as long as students aren’t penalized for not knowing the answer and a discussion is provided.


  5. Thank you Siobhan, for responding to my requested topic! You are so helpful! And classes just started today, so this is a great time to try some new techniques.

    Some things I have done:

    Divide students into small groups, and have them account to the rest of the class what conclusions they came up with. It sounds like several of you do this as well. I like to walk around and hear bits and pieces of what they are discussing. I have observed that some quiet students become quite animated in more intimate settings.

    I have my students take online preparation quizzes before class, most of which feature at least one or two open-ended “thinking” topics. Then as I prep for class, I read through the answers and select a few that are particularly insightful. Then I ask that student to share their thoughts in class. They have usually taken the quiz in the last 24 hours, so it is not like cold-calling, but it does still put them on the spot a bit. 99% of the time, however, the quieter student rises brilliantly to the occasion, and seems pleased that not only did I actually read their answer, I thought it was worth discussing with the entire class. Sometimes this turns into an opportunity to make that particular student feel “safe,” and they become a more regular participator.

    I sometimes request that I have 20-30 seconds of silence in the classroom after a question is asked so that students can think about an answer.

    Learning names really helps, even though having classes with 50-70 students makes this difficult for me. I can usually have them down in 3-4 weeks, though.

    And sometimes, there are students who feel some kind of need to constantly comment. They must learn by hearing themselves work through things. For these students, I have to develop a “blind spot.” Once they have made a comment or two, I simply ignore them. I think other students start to feel irritated if “over-commenters” aren’t reigned in a bit.

    Thanks so much for all the ideas, everyone! Also….any thoughts on reigning in the “over-commenters”? I could certainly use some new techniques!


    1. The 20-30 seconds of silence technique is interesting. I’m imagining extending it to a minute, and telling them they can make some notes if they wish.

      As for “over-commenters,” I sometimes go so far as to say, “Ok, this time I want to hear from someone OTHER THAN Daphne!” This seems to call the student’s attention to the fact that she’s dominating. And I try to discourage “calling out,” so if the same student is always raising her hand, I’ll say, “Ok, I’m going to call on people…”


      1. Yes, I have had to say that too. Every once in a while they do not get repeated hints and there is no other solution but absolute directness. I have even had to pull a couple aside and remind them that although I appreciate the enthusiasm, there are other people in the class who want a chance too.


  6. I am re-reading the post–I so agree…”As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.”

    This happens to me too. I am all fired up and full of ideas at the beginning of the semester. At midterms–not so much.


  7. Actually, I use cold-calling to get students away from being afraid to say anything other than The Answer Teacher Wants. I often phrase the first go-round as “Name, what can you tell me about Concept X?” If the student called on says “Nothing” or “I don’t know,” I accept that answer (temporarily) and then get volunteers to offer support to the first student. I then go back to the first student and ask him/her either just to reiterate one of the responses, or to select which one s/he thinks is most important and tell me why it is.

    If the student gives an answer, right or wrong, my follow-up is usually “Okay, how do you know?” or “Where did you learn that?” Even with a ‘just a guess’ answer – the idea came from SOMEWHERE.


  8. I just have to say, I live your blog! Great topic!

    Much like the other commenters, I use a variety of techniques. I use wait time, have kids write their answers first then tell individuals that I plan to call on them during the discussion, and really only cold calling during open ended discussions.

    I think a key to cold calling is creating a safe environment. Even if an answer is way wrong, all the students need to be free from ridicule by the teacher and other students. varying views should be encouraged and the kids need to be praised for their efforts.*


    1. Thanks Amy! I’m always so happy to get your comments. The “safe environment” is so tricky – we do what we can, and we can do our best to guide the ambiance in the room, but we know so little about the students’ histories with each other. I work at a large college, and most of my classes are multi-program, but some are not, and so the students know each other well and have lots of baggage. Even in multi-program classes, you never know if you’ve put a bully and a victim together in a group, or two people who had a falling-out in the lab last week. I’ve rarely had overt problems, but sometimes when my students are reticent or belligerent, I wonder if there’s something going on that I’m missing.


  9. Hmmmm…the only reference point I have is my time as a teaching assistant while in graduate school. In this case, my students were adults and I expected them to take initiative, seeing as how it was their participation grade that was at stake. It’s a bit of a different environment in that the teacher is not necessarily expected to take responsibility for the student’s participation.

    That being said, when a commenter dominated I had no hesitation to simply say, “I’d like to hear from someone else.” I’d let that linger for a few seconds and someone would usually jump in.

    I think all the techniques described in the post sound great in theory, but on the other hand the costs can be high. Students hate being called on directly – I know I did – and I don’t think it contributes to a healthy group environment. I know a teacher doesn’t have to be liked in all respects, but the only outcome here is that all students will despise you as the one who calls on students and potentially embarrasses them.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve really added anything to the discussion and the dilemma is still there. But if you’re willing to be that teacher that scares everyone, maybe these techniques will pay off in the long run.


    1. Ravi: You clearly have strong feelings about this! I think there are ways to prepare students for being called on that can lessen the fear – some of the commenters have described some good ones. I think if the students know what to expect from you and, as some of the commenters mention, you create a safe and flexible environment, it can work.


      1. I hope the comment didn’t come on too strong and the point about being that teacher that everyone hate’s wasn’t meant to sound harsh. I think you’re right though that setting out expectations is key and perhaps that can ease the process of cold calling. I suppose I have trouble warming to the idea because I was such a timid student. But if students come to see it as a benefit and you can win them over, it will be no small feat 🙂


  10. I use a couple of techniques to reduce the ‘constant commenter’ problem.
    First is ‘Three Before Me’; I tell students at the beginning of the semester, and remind them later, that in order to encourage everyone to participate, a student who has just made a comment or answered a question should wait for three others to participate before they do so again themselves.
    Second is ‘Think Pair Share’, where I ask a brief question or give a little topic, give students a VERY short time to think about it on their own, then another short time to talk about it with one neighbour, then I go around either asking what specific people thought/discussed, or asking what their share partner said (keeps ’em awake while sharing!).
    Third is ‘free write’; give them a few moments to write down their thoughts on the topic, then go around asking people quite randomly. Just having that bit of time to think greatly increases the likelihood a student will have something useful to say.
    I agree that we should be able to ask any student to contribute – but I like to make it that bit less intimidating when I can!


  11. As a student I think teachers should cold call. Like sometimes in real life you have to give an opinion when you are being asked as well. I used to be one of those students who would never volunteer. And I got so stressed when teachers put the spotlight on me and asked me for my opinion. But because of teachers who cold-call, I have learned that if I don’t want to get cold-called, I must answer whenever I have an opinion. If I don’t I would have to make up an answer on the spot, which is another thing cold-calling has taught me. Anxiety is just something you have to learn to get over with, just like public speaking.


    1. DISR: “I have learned that if I don’t want to get cold-called, I must answer whenever I have an opinion.” A good lesson! If cold-calling leads to more participation in general, then it’s a great technique. And I like how you’ve taken an experience that made you uncomfortable, and learned something useful from it.


  12. Being a student myself, I used to hate being questioned in lessons, and being asked to read in English. However, I now feel that by doing this with positive reinforcement techniques, can help boost self confidence – I’m now in the upper sixth, and am more than happy to deliver presentations and interpretations to text.


  13. Being a student myself, I used to hate being questioned in lessons, and being asked to read in English. However, I now feel that by doing this with positive reinforcement techniques, can help boost self confidence – I’m now in the upper sixth, and am more than happy to deliver presentations and interpretations to text.


      1. Hi Siobhan,
        I strongly feel that partnering students together makes it much easier for the shy members of the class to make their contributions. I’m not sure about others, but I personally find it much easier to express myself if I am able to listen to what others think; finding that other people are approaching the literature in a different way to what I am always makes me feel like investigating both view points.

        Also, I think that delivering presentations in small groups works wonders for one’s confidence. At stated previously, I used to HATE giving any form of input from work set, as it was most uncomfortable; I always used to perceive other class members as much more talented than myself. However, through the use regular speaking, I am now able to function and portray my ideologies much easier than I used to be able to.


        1. TNR: Partners and groups seem to help, it’s true. On the other side, some students HATE working with others – and students who would prefer it also need practice working on their own – it’s tricky to maintain a balance! I often give them the option of working alone or with others, when I can.


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