Cold-Calling: An Inclusive Way to Make You – and Your Students – Work Harder!

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

  1. Ensure it’s fair. Cold-call all students equally, perhaps using a device like a selector wheel or lolly sticks with names on.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Follow-up on a question with further questions to draw out deeper understanding. ‘Why’ questions are often useful here.
  5. 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.

H5P content

I’ve become interested in creating interactive learning resources using H5P, which is an open-source framework based on Javascript.

It offers a powerful selection of tools that make it easy to create all kinds of learning content – including interactive quizzes, presentations and games.

No programming knowledge is needed – just creative thought and a willingness to spend time putting together content.

Below is my first attempt at using it. I’ve created a short lesson on ‘circle elements’, using public domain images and my own simple circle graphics. Have a go at it below and give me your thoughts in the comments – either as a student or a teacher.

You can find out more at h5p.org