The Art of Cold Calling: Blogiversary Post #7

I’ve had some heated discussions about whether “cold calling” is good practice.  When I posted about it a couple of years ago, the post got a lot of comments and got passed around a lot.  What are your thoughts?  Is it a good idea to spring questions on students out of the blue?  Does it help them demonstrate mastery, or just provoke unnecessary anxiety?


oGmlilgAre you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss the problem of 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 fear.  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.


Tomorrow: Top Ten Student Excuses for Missing Class.

Image by Prawny


11 thoughts on “The Art of Cold Calling: Blogiversary Post #7

  1. I’ve only gotten a chance to student teach, but I know that I tried to balance out cold-calling and callin on students who volunteer because I needed to practice both. But as interesting as it is to cold-call and use it as a means to check for the student’s abilities as well as my teaching abilities, I tried to warn the students beforehand because I personally don’t like being caught off guard because it blanks my brain out. But I understand the benefits that you’d cited in the post. It’s just so alluring to pick on a student who is volunteering to raise their hand and answer your question because that at least means that someone is paying attention enough to you and you avoid the crickets in the classroom, so to speak.

    So I guess to wrap up this little tangent, I’d think cold-calling has its place to ignite the fire under te students’ butts but I wouldn’t want to do it for the sake of doing it and put the students in an uncomfortable position. Ideally, I’d love a balance.


    1. Sam: I think the key with cold-calling is to use it only with material students KNOW they should know, and to prepare them (ex. tell them “I will be cold-calling tomorrow, so make sure you have read this text and you ask questions at the beginning of class about anything you don’t understand.” I find this sometimes eliminates the need for cold-calling, as the time is taken up with students asking questions!)


  2. I don’t cold call much in my classes. Although I think having engaged and responsive students is important, there is something to the fact that introverted students suffer greatly in this environment. I’m not sure if cold-calling really gets to the question of engagement or if it just drives introverted (but engaged) students from the class (and may cause them to think that they can’t perform well because they don’t deal well with this part of class). I like the idea of short response papers (to check for understanding without forcing them to speak out), group discussions with one person reporting (and often my students will point to who the person was who came up with a particularly insightful comment – something they would never do for themselves), and/or pair and shares during class. I am a public speaking/communication studies instructor and students in my classes are often already terrified of the public speaking aspect of the class, so adding on the daily stress of cold calling seems cruel and unnecessary to me.


    1. That’s the thing for me. As a more extroverted-oriented individual, I sometimes lose sight of people who are introverted and who may have social anxiety. Ultimately, I’d like to be able to get class participation but in a much more positive manner that doesn’t feel like such a daunting task for students. I’ve always been ok with talking in class when I eventually get a chance to speak, but even I know that I break a sweat when I’m wondering if I’m going to get singled out and called on. For the most part, teachers just want participation out of you, but I think you’re right that there are better ways to engage them without practically threatening them.


      1. I am an introvert myself, but am liable to talk a LOT in class if I’m the one controlling when I speak. I have found, however – both for myself and for my students – that preparing answers beforehand, usually in groups, eliminates a lot of the anxiety generated by cold-calling. All students know they may be called upon, but if worse comes to worst, they can just read whatever they have collectively written on their paper.


  3. I was a teacher for 13 years in NYC. I hated cold calling. I had students from all backgrounds in one classroom and some of them just couldn’t speak English that well. I would never put a kid in that heart pounding anxiety filled position. That being said, I turned cold calling into a game. On my attendance roster, each student had a number ranging from 1-34 (yes, I had 34 kids per class times 5 classes). I made little cut outs of each number and placed them in a bag. I told the students on the first day that once we got to know each other better and program changes were fixed etc, I would be using the bag of numbers to call upon students to answer or contribute. That student got to pick the next number from the bag. If a student was absent, we would simply choose another number. They loved it! And it worked. They were all “at risk” of being called on and it was completely random. It worked for me. It was fun and everybody did contribute as they were ready knowing their number could be called at any time.


  4. I cold call, but Lemov’s book was my bible during my student teaching. I think the point you make about students being prepared to answer is critical for cold calling being to assure learning instead if punitive. I use Popsicle sticks with student names on them to call on students, but I’m also not afraid to rig the system. While students are working individually or in groups on the material we will be discussing during which I will be using cold calls, I check in with my special ed and ELL kids to make sure they have an answer they will be comfortable sharing with the group. I’ll also skip over kids that I know are having a rough time. I truly think it is the only way to have equitable distribution of student voice in my classroom!


    1. Bridget: do you have any issues with SE/ELL kids feeling singled out or embarrassed by being treated “differently” from the others? I sometimes do as you describe, but am sometimes self-conscious about being discreet and avoiding focusing attention on specific students.


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