When to cold-call? Today.

When is the best time to start cold-calling students? The first day of class.

There are plenty of reasons not to. We have to “get through” the syllabus. We don’t know the students’ names yet. We haven’t built a relationship yet. The students haven’t learned any of the material yet.

But I’m going to argue that cold-calling is an essential first day activity — perhaps the most essential first day activity.

Here’s why:

  1. It sets the tone for the entire year. Students realize immediately that this is not a class where they can hide in the back and let more assertive, outspoken students dominate the conversation. Everyone will be involved, every day if possible.
  2. It opens the door. Once a student has been called on, they are more comfortable speaking aloud in class, and then they are more comfortable asking questions in class. This is critical to building an interactive, inquisitive class environment.
  3. It creates a safe environment. It’s non-threatening to call on kids the first day because they know it’s OK not to know any answers. You’re just brainstorming together, seeing what they can deduce. “What do you think economics is about?” “What’s the most interesting psych experiment you’ve ever heard of?” “How do you think clouds form?” Students learn it’s OK to say “pass” or “I don’t know.”
  4. It affirms the students. Seating chart in hand, you call out their names and make eye contact. It says: “I notice you, I know you are here.” It takes the focus off the teacher, and it helps you learn names at the same time.
  5. It makes daily cold-calling easier for the teacher. Research has found that the higher rate of opportunities to respond during instruction, the greater the likelihood students will be engaged. Still, two-thirds of students have no opportunity to respond in a typical class period. Teachers need to take the plunge and start doing it.

If you didn’t start cold-calling students on the first day of class, start now. You’ll see higher levels of student engagement, draw more questions from struggling students, and form relationships more quickly.

It’s a little scary — for both teachers and students — but it’s worth it.

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