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The 5 mistakes to avoid when Cold-Calling

The 5 mistakes to avoid when Cold-Calling

4 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times

In the last few years, Cold-Calling has become one of the most popular means of participation in the classroom. While it sounds simple and straightforward, potential application mistakes can render an otherwise brilliant technique useless.

So, we’ve taken the time to explore the five most common mistakes teachers can make when Cold-Calling, and what you can do to ensure you don’t fall into these traps…

A refresher on Cold-Calling

What is Cold-Calling?

According to Doug Lemov, Cold-Calling is calling on a student regardless of whether they have offered to participate and a way of inviting students to join the conversation. Essentially, it consists of picking a student to answer your question. You can find out more in our deep-dive interview with Doug Lemov.

What are the effects of Cold-Calling in the classroom?

It has consistently been found that Cold-Calling has the potential to increase student engagement in the classroom. In a comprehensive study, researchers compared classes with high levels of Cold-Calling and classes with low levels of Cold-Calling. Over the course of the year, they found that students in the former condition were more likely to answer questions voluntarily.

However, emerging evidence suggests that Cold-Calling can potentially increase students’ feelings of discomfort and anxiety if not used carefully. Therefore, it helps to know what to avoid when implementing this technique.

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The 5 mistakes to avoid when Cold-Calling

To ensure effective Cold-Calling, here are five common pitfalls to try to avoid when using this questioning strategy. Let’s look at these together…

1. Don’t equate Cold-Calling with no hands up

Some people equate Cold-Calling with no hands up. The thinking being that if you’re selecting who answers anyways, why would you need your students to volunteer?

While it makes sense at first glance to think this way, it is important to remember that students raising their hands and wanting to participate is a very important moment as it:

  • Sends out a signal  When a student raises their hand, it signals to other students in the room that they care about what is happening, would like to speak, and are engaged in this conversation. This helps establish the social norm to participate in the classroom, which in turn boosts engagement.
  • Gives us data  The number of hands that are up is a good way to check the understanding of your students. If you only get one or two hands up, it may mean that most students still need more teaching or more time to help with that concept.

Sometimes you may want hands-up. Sometimes you may not. There doesn’t have to be a set rule or dogma. What is important to remember is that, when using Cold-Calling, you have the option to call on students that don’t have their hands raised.

2. Don’t equate Cold-Calling with picking on students who weren’t paying attention

Cold-Calling is not a behaviour management technique. It is not meant to expose and embarrass students who haven’t been paying attention and are therefore unprepared. Doing so will create a negative classroom culture and make students feel anxious.

A good rule of thumb is that you should want your students to answer the question successfully when Cold-Calling. This may mean calling on someone who is well prepared, letting students jot their thoughts down as notes for first, or adopting the Think, Pair, Share technique.

3. How you deal with incorrect answers

This is one of the trickiest (and arguably most important) part of Cold-Calling. If students do get an answer wrong, there is a thin line between praising their effort for contributing and not being patronising. Not knowing how to deal with wrong answers means things can get awkward fast in the classroom.

One potentially good way to diffuse this awkwardness is to draw attention away from the student who made the mistake. You can do this through the “turn and talk to your partner” strategy. For more about this, see our video with Michael Chiles discussing questioning and how to deal with wrong answers.

4. Don’t skip Wait Times after Cold-Calling

Many teachers use Cold-Calling because it allows students to engage in Retrieval Practice. However, research has shown that teachers only wait 0.7-1.4 seconds on average between asking a question and calling out to get a response from a student. This means that students may not have sufficient time to retrieve essential information and strengthen their memory.

To ensure your students harness the Testing Effect, give ample time when thinking about your wait times. There is no set or optimal amount as it depends on too many factors (such as the type of question). But as a rough rule of thumb, we want students’ “best answers, not just their first ones”.

5. Don’t use only Cold-Calling

Whilst Cold-Calling can be an effective questioning tool, other strategies can also help you create a comprehensive learning environment.

Consider using Think, Pair, Share to help foster a relaxed and comfortable classroom climate. Allowing students to talk something through with a peer before speaking in front of the class decreases the pressure they may feel otherwise through Cold-Calling on top of other benefits. You can even use the two in combination with another.

Another good strategy to opt for is mini whiteboards. They make all students’ thinking visible, so you have the information needed to respond immediately or in future lesson planning.

Check out our blog on Cold-Calling vs Think, Pair, Share vs mini whiteboards – and the pros and cons of each.

Final thoughts

While Cold-Calling can be a very effective way to enhance classroom engagement, incorrect implementation can be detrimental. We hope the tips above help you avoid common Cold-Calling mistakes and cultivate a positive and productive learning environment that promotes student growth and achievement.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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