The Art of Cold Calling Students

Peter Romaskiewicz photo.JPG

Jin’e Temple 金峨寺, Ningbo, China, summer 2017. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

I have never cold-called students in my classes, but I am becoming more intrigued by it. I am hesitant for the reason many others likely share: I would never want to embarrass or alienate a student who is uncomfortable speaking in a group setting. Yet, I run against a persistent problem in my classrooms where only a narrow segment of students consistently share their thoughts. Simply, I am looking for a tool in my pedagogical “tool kit” to combat this problem.

My current summer class has been no exception to this rule. I also noticed this segment of students thinned throughout the term, with only about 4-5 students (out of 25) regularly participating by the end. I was happy to observe that small group work was effective in producing “new” speakers when we convened for class discussion. But I cannot plan group activities for every facet of a lesson, lecturing and asking (open-ended) questions still remains the backbone of my teaching style.

There has been some compelling research on the value of cold-calling recently. One study (by Dan Levy & Josh Bookin) shows that cold-calling actually helps to increase voluntary student responses. It appears that effective cold-calling “breaks the ice,” so to speak, giving the classroom environment a sense of inclusivity that makes students more willing to volunteer ideas. Another study (by Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt) shows that when cold-calling is used in conjunction with student online postings, students devote an additional hour to assigned readings. A slightly refined technique is suggest by a recent dissertation (by Brittany Carstens) which calls for teachers to gradually switch over from cold-calling to voluntary participation after student engagement increases.

Personally I am not motivated to use cold-calling as a coercive technique to ensure students do their assigned readings (I discussed my primary coercive technique elsewhere). I am interested in getting more engaged students, however. After talking with some colleagues and reading around on the internet, these are my most important takeaways about cold-calling.

  1. Prime the Students: List “public speaking” and/or related skills, as a course goal. Devote a few words to it as well at the beginning of the course.
  2. Start ’em Early: Cold-calling students has to occur on the first day of class and occur regularly thereafter. I really wanted to try cold-calling during this summer class, but decided to ease off on the idea because I was pleased with student participation early on. By the middle of the term I wanted to hear from different student voices, but also did not want to shift the learning environment so significantly halfway through the class and risk really embarrassing a student.
  3. Be Inquisitive: Be motivated by caring to hear what students have to think and say. Too easily cold-calling is conceived as simply testing students to see if they did the work. That’s setting up a rather antagonistic environment. I had one grad seminar when the teacher cold-called a student and caught him a little off guard (he did not regularly cold-call folks). The student asked, in a friendly manner, why he had be chosen. The teacher simply shrugged and said, “well, I usually enjoy your thoughts, so I thought I’d ask.” It was a natural and honest response, and I still remember it.
  4. Model Thinking-Out-Loud: Students may be intimidated to speak without well-formed thoughts. This is one reason why I think my group exercises generated several “new” participants, they were able to rehearse their ideas. Perhaps instructors can speak a little off-the-cuff to invite similar “live thinking” from students.
  5. Inviting Others: Closely related to the above point is inviting students to help others along or to fill in the blanks. Instead of moving on from a student who does not have a response, you could have him or her take a wild guess, or just invent something (as students commonly do on exams!). From a different angle, you could also invite students to critique or build upon a response.
  6. All’s Fair: To avoid bias (or always picking on the student who doesn’t pay attention) it may be reasonable to select students (truly) at random. Index cards with names are one clear option. There are several “random picker” and “random name picker” apps for phones.
  7. The Shift: Not all responses need to be cold-called. Cold-calling can be used to generate initial conversation. You can ask for volunteers after a few responses, or even switch completely over to volunteer participation once broad engagement is achieved.

To be honest, even after reading and thinking about this, I am still hesitant. Cold-calling is not a natural part of my personality nor my teaching persona, but I do want to challenge myself and try new things, even if I ultimately decide they are not well suited for me.

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