Teachers often resist calling on students whose hands are not raised, fearing that suddenly thrusting students into the spotlight will cause them to feel uncomfortable. The practice, often referred to as cold calling, is a divisive issue, with advocates saying it’s a useful tool to call kids to attention and critics charging that it’s ineffective and also promotes fear-based learning. As the author Alfie Kohn points out, calling on unsuspecting students can feel like surveillance: “You’d better be prepared because you never know when I’m going to call on you!”
A close look at the research reveals data that supports both positions, depending on the context. In a 2022 study, researchers recorded the daily lessons of 15 teachers across four middle schools, isolating 86 cold-calling events. A detailed analysis of the practice showed that teachers generally employed one of two approaches when cold calling: “Encouraging and engaging on the one hand, but also confrontational and intimidating on the other hand.”
Teachers using the former, warmer approach were able to quickly check for understanding while ameliorating students’ fears and anxiety, resulting in richer, more productive classroom discussions in which students felt “safe to take risks.” Teachers who tried to catch students off-guard, however, tended to foster an atmosphere of heightened anxiety. Cold calling, in these classrooms, was “successful only in terms of a superficial engagement”—but teachers who used cold calling this way ultimately undermined classroom participation by making students feel “incompetent and anxious,” the researchers concluded.
Warming up Your Cold Calling
While the research suggests that using cold calling primarily to catch inattentive students generates more anxiety than learning, using it strategically to check for understanding, jump-start classroom discussions, or promote equity of voice has clear benefits, according to several studies of the practice. Cold calling is also lightweight: It’s easy for teachers to deploy and allows them to ask questions and quickly seek feedback as classroom dynamics change. A teacher who sees a student suddenly looking confused might quickly check for understanding, for example, and even pivot the lesson to provide more context if the rest of the class is also puzzled.
But cold calling does require a soft touch. When used in an inviting, respectful manner—setting up the cold call by saying, “I’d like to hear some ideas,” for example—it can gradually reduce feelings of anxiety and dramatically increase class participation, according to a 2013 study. Researchers at Northeastern University analyzed student participation in 16 college classrooms and discovered that as the year progressed, cold calling boosted the rate of students voluntarily speaking up in discussions by 60 percent, compared with classrooms where cold calling was not practiced. By the end of the course, students who experienced high levels of cold calling felt more comfortable participating in discussions, compared with their counterparts who didn’t regularly experience cold calling.
“These findings are consistent with the development of communication skills more generally; that is, the more a student practices participating in class discussions (even if via cold calling), the more skilled the student becomes, and the more comfortable he or she becomes when using this skill,” the researchers conclude.
Cold calling can also be a powerful strategy for creating a more equitable environment for female students, according to a 2019 study. When students are asked to raise their hands, male students typically speak up in class more frequently than female students, but in classrooms where cold calling is frequently used, males and females participate at equal rates—even during voluntary discussions. These findings align with a separate 2019 study that found that when college teachers acknowledged each response as valuable and avoided using cold calling as a trap, students perceived their class as a welcome environment and were more likely to participate in discussions.
8 WAYS MAKE YOUR COLD CALLING PRODUCTIVE
In isolation, cold calling won’t do the trick. To nurture a truly collaborative, participatory classroom environment, teachers on Edutopia recommended deploying a mix of strategies: turn-and-talk, participation cards, and hand signals, to name a few. Asynchronous discussion activities, meanwhile—such as using Google Docs to share comments and ask questions—remove some of the pressure of speaking up in class, and other classroom activities can be used to scaffold participation. At School 21 in London, for example, students become talk detectives, tasked with listening attentively and using a checklist to spot productive elements as their peers discuss an assigned topic—such as “building on somebody else’s ideas” or “inviting someone else to contribute.”
But cold calling has its rightful place alongside these other participation and assessment approaches. Here are eight evidence-based tips to optimize your cold-calling approach:
1. Focus on the Effort, not the Answer
It can be intimidating for students to be asked a question in front of their peers, but highly effective teachers are able to assuage those feelings by reframing the activity. For example, students who initially felt anxious about being called on reported that they felt more confident when their teacher “emphasized effort over correctness,” according to a 2019 study. When cold calling students, use these phrases to keep the focus on effort, not the right answer:
- “This material is new, so I don’t expect you to have a perfect answer—I just want to hear your thinking on the topic.”
- “That’s a really good idea. Can anyone else build on it?”
- “This is a challenging question—I just want to get a feel for where the class is on this.”
2. Offer a Lifeline
In the popular show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, contestants who get stuck on a question can use a lifeline: They can phone a friend, ask the audience, or use a 50:50 (they can choose from one of two possible answers—one that’s correct and the other incorrect). In the 2019 study, researchers found that giving students an opportunity to “back out of a cold call decreased their feelings of anxiousness associated with cold calling.” Avoid giving students unlimited lifelines, though; they should be used sparingly or as a last resort.
3. Use Students’ Names
“Learning a student’s name is an important first step in developing a personal connection with them and making them feel like they belong,” explains high school social science teacher Alex Brouhard, and research supports that claim. Using students’ names in a friendly, welcoming manner—paired with nonverbal cues such as eye contact and nodding—can turn a cold call from an interrogation into a genuine opportunity to elicit responses.
Pro tip: Don’t start your cold call with a student’s name—that’ll only cause the rest of the class to immediately tune out and raise the anxiety level of the intended respondent, says Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. Instead, ask the question first, pause for at least a few seconds (or even longer, depending on how challenging the question is, as we discuss in section 8, below), and then call on a student by name. By doing so, you reduce the pressure on the respondent and ensure that all students are thinking about the question and formulating a response.
4. Build Off What Students Know
If it’s clear that a student doesn’t know the answer, you can rephrase the question to be more general and then build off their answer. For example, if a student is waffling, you can redirect by asking the student what they know about the topic or what they found interesting about it. Connecting a question to a student’s prior knowledge is an effective way to boost engagement, according to a 2020 study.
5. Be Mindful of Your Disposition
When cold calling students, the tone and manner of your voice matters: “Repeatedly interrupting students before they have finished responding; breaking eye contact with the responder; or using an aggressive or condescending tone of voice, facial expressions such as grimacing, and/or alienating body language such as turning away from the responder will erode students’ sense of safety and self-worth,” researchers explain in a 2013 study.
6. Call on Groups
For challenging material, you can split up the class into pairs or small groups, spreading out the responsibility for knowing the answer. “Within our groups we have multiple brains, and we were all thinking together, and then we would share as a group,” reported a college student in the 2019 study. “So that’s good at making people comfortable because it’s not just yourself talking.”
For Rosie Reid, the 2019 California Teacher of the Year, group discussion strategies like turn-and-talk and pairs and squares can help increase the number of students who share their ideas in class—especially ones who are shy or introverted. “My students all have ideas, but only some of them share those ideas on a regular basis,” she says.
7. Cast a Wide Net
If you’re not careful, you may inadvertently call on the same students over and over—perhaps skipping over shy students or not calling on those who you think already know the answer, research suggests. World language teacher Lindsay Mitchell uses a creative approach to visually track participation: Every time a student speaks up, she hands them a small rubber duck. “Tracking student participation with objects can be an easy way to see who is dominating the conversation,” she says.
At the University of Wyoming Lab School, first-/second-grade teacher Marla Scherr uses equity sticks—a cup full of frozen-pop sticks with students’ names written on them—to give each student a fair opportunity to contribute in class without appearing as though she is intentionally singling certain ones out.
“Equity sticks keep students on their toes, mentally alert, and poised to contribute,” explains former principal Shane Safir. “When used routinely, this practice promotes a culture of participation and attention.”
8. Extend Wait Time
One way to improve the quality of your cold calls is to leave ample time after asking a question—but before calling on a student. This ensures that the entire class is thinking about a response, instead of the single student you pick out, and gives them time to stretch their thinking. “Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed,” writes former English and social studies teacher John McCarthy, who suggests pausing between 5 and 15 seconds. “Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.”
According to a 2013 study, extending wait time is linked to “longer student responses, an increase in the number of students volunteering to respond, and an increase in the number of follow-up questions posed by students.”