I haven’t always been a fan of students being cold-called for answers in-class. I used to hate being called on as a school-boy to give answers when I wasn’t ready or confident. The introverted student that I was would often rather sit there, listening carefully, taking things in and asking questions when I needed to rather than when the teacher decided. It wasn’t exactly like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ – “You boy! What’s 8×7?”, but it sometimes felt like it.
For a long time during my career, I was guilty of using this reasoning for not cold-calling students. They would, I imagined, engage with the learning if they wanted to, and if they didn’t there was little I could do about it short of ensuring my lessons were energetic and varied.
I also saw cold-calling as unfair on those students who, like me, wanted to engage with the lesson in a quiet, reflective way rather than being put under the spotlight with an unwanted question in front of their peers. I assumed that calling on a student for an answer would cause anxiety and serve no real purpose if the only answer was a shrug of the shoulders or a ‘dunno’.
I now see that I was wrong. Cold-calling is an essential part of checking for understanding and an effective tool for increasing engagement and accountability in the lesson. It also takes a great deal of effort and energy to do well, which is perhaps why some teachers shy away from it; it’s easier to ask the general ‘Is everyone OK with that?’ question rather than spend the time checking individually whether the understanding really is there. You could almost say it’s a dereliction of duty not to cold-call, because those students who don’t understand are unlikely to speak up – if they even realise they haven’t fully understood in the first place.
Cold-calling doesn’t have to feel humiliating for the student, or even induce anxiety. If it’s made a standard part of the lesson in a supportive environment where making mistakes are treated as an opportunity to learn rather than a failure, it can be an incredibly powerful tool. But that environment has to be fostered early on, through the teacher’s actions.
5 Tips for Effective Cold-Calling
- Ensure it’s fair. Cold-call all students equally, perhaps using a device like a selector wheel or lolly sticks with names on.
- Ask the question before naming the student you’re calling on. This gives everyone a chance to think of an answer and doesn’t put undue pressure on the person being asked to come up with an answer on the spot.
- Differentiate your questioning. You can boost learners’ confidence if they are working at a low level by asking an easier question and challenge confident students with more challenging questions.
- Follow-up on a question with further questions to draw out deeper understanding. ‘Why’ questions are often useful here.
- Open-ended questions give students an opportunity to shine and they don’t feel like being put ‘on the spot’ as a closed question with a single correct answer. “How would you go about multiplying 7 by 8?” is much nicer than just “What’s 7×8?”
Persevere with it if you do try such a transformation. It may feel laboured at first, but with time the students should come to expect such interactions and will increase their own participation subconsciously – especially if your cold-calling is boosting their confidence.
For a more detailed insight into cold-calling, have a read of Doug Lemov’s blog post, detailing how it’s an inclusive technique.