‘Cold-calling’ — done right — is an effective way to build classroom participation

ClassroomcopyPresenting in front of the class makes me uncomfortable.

If the teacher calls on me, I tense up and can’t speak.

Running in phy ed makes me self-conscious and ashamed.

There are a lot of things we ask of students that they don’t want to do. Does that mean we should stop asking?

Earlier this month, I read this Atlantic magazine article explaining how teens are using social media to effectively kill public speaking assignments. Too stressful, they say.

Then I saw this passage in Matthew Kay’s book, Not Light But Fire (an excellent book, by the way, about engaging students in meaningful conversations about race).

The quote is from one of his students:

“Going to a class with a teacher that frequently cold-calls students is like preparing for war. My heart rate accelerates and I break out in a cold sweat, even before the teacher asks a question… I am constantly fighting myself to stay in my seat, instead of making an exit by way of ‘going to the bathroom’ or whatever excuse will get me out of the classroom and out of the pool of victims that the teacher is at leisure to call on at any moment.”

That sounds terrible — with brutal analogies to “war” and a “pool of victims” —  and I’m guessing most readers will conclude that cold-calling is also cruel and must stop.

But I’m going to disagree and say: Not so fast.

Cold-calling (like presenting in class) doesn’t have to be traumatizing.  Done right, cold-calling is actually one of the most effective ways to engage all of your students in classroom discussion.

. . .

So what is cold-calling, and how do we get it right?

Basically, it means a teacher calling on students who do not have their hands raised.

Here’s how you do it wrong: Use cold-calling to shock a dozing student into alertness or embarrass a student who wasn’t paying attention or challenge a smart aleck with a difficult question. That’s why it gets a bad name.

But I know all students benefit from talking, and we all benefit from hearing everyone’s voices, and even on a good day only half of my 36 students will voluntarily talk. The longer into the semester they don’t talk, the harder it gets.

So I use cold-calling students with the goal of breaking the ice. Here’s how:

  • Use “softball” questions at the beginning of the semester to get everyone talking. Content-relevant but low-stakes questions like: Have you ever experienced a food aversion? (psych) or How much would you pay for this beaded bracelet? (econ) help students find their voice.
  • Give students time to answer questions in a journal before sharing aloud. They have time to think through their response and don’t feel pressured. This strategy opened up much better discussions in Civil Liberties — and put a pause on the fast responders.
  • Let students think-pair-share before answering aloud. That way no one is on the spot to provide their own answer — and the risk of being wrong is diluted to the pair or group.
  • Allow students to say “pass” with no repercussions. Period.
  • Say the student’s name first, then pose the question, so there’s never a “gotcha” moment.
  • Finally, don’t use cold-calling for challenging questions. I always give a warning — “this is a tough one” — and seek volunteers. The fact that I’ve called it “tough” automatically lowers the risk of being wrong and rewards the brave soul who volunteers.

. . .

In my classes, I’ve found this kind of cold-calling encourages participation, and by the time we’re a month into the semester, many more students are also volunteering.

Here’s what one of my seniors told me in a thank you note last spring:

“On the first day of freshman year, I remember thinking… ‘oh no, this teacher calls on people who aren’t raising their hand.’ … Throughout the four years, I saw how much you cared about student learning. Thank you for keeping me on my toes and helping me have a voice in class by calling on me even when my hand wasn’t up. You always pushed me to be better.”

This echoes the research. Dallimore, Hertenstein and Platt (2012) compared student participation in classes with and without cold-calling and here’s what they found:

“The percentage of students who participate in class discussions increases quite dramatically from just more than half in low cold-calling sections to just more than 90% in high cold-calling sections.”

Quieter students need to know that we want to hear from them — not just from the big talkers. They need to know we value their opinions and ideas. And they need to know that our classrooms are a safe space for that.

And by the way, the kid who objected to running in gym class? That was me. And for the record, I’m glad my teachers made me do it. Our teenage selves, it turns out, don’t always know what’s best.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom