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A complete guide to Cold-Calling in the classroom

A complete guide to Cold-Calling in the classroom

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

Cold-Calling, which is simply the act of choosing a student to answer a question in class, is an increasingly popular strategy to help ensure all students are thinking and participating in their learning.

But what seems like a simple and straightforward technique is actually more nuanced and subtle than meets the eye. The way you use Cold-Calling has a direct influence on student engagement, well-being and learning. Read on to learn everything you need to know about:

  • What Cold-Calling is and how it works
  • How to stop Cold-Calling from causing anxiety in your students
  • 5 common mistakes to avoid when Cold-Calling
  • How to use Cold-Calling with other learning strategies

What is Cold-Calling?

Cold-Calling is the opposite of self-selection. It consists of calling upon a specific student to answer a question, whether they put their hand up or not.

This helps ensure the classroom conversation is spread equally and not monopolised by the loudest or quickest students. In this sense, it prioritises voice equity and conveys to students that everyone’s opinion matters and that they all belong in your setting.

It’s also a great way to make sure all students are actively engaging with the lesson material and thinking hard in your classroom, ultimately boosting learning outcomes.

What does Cold-Calling look like?

The process of Cold-Calling

Cold-Calling is a three-step process:

  1. The preparation stage: The teacher sets up the task and creates a participation framework.
  2. Active Cold-Calling: The teacher asks a student they’ve chosen a question.
  3. The post-question stage: The student answers and the teacher responds.

The two types of Cold-Calling

Recent research suggests that there are probably two different types of Cold-Calling which gauge different reactions from students:

  1. Collaborative Cold-Calling – This is when you frame Cold-Calling as part of a conversation, inviting students to contribute to it one by one. This helps transform your classroom into a collaborative thinking environment, where students are encouraged to engage in active conversation, enhancing a sense of belonging.
  2. Unconditional Cold-Calling – This type of Cold-Calling is framed as an obligation to comply and participate. This is more of a Q&A format and is less free-flowing compared to Collaborative Cold-Calling. This can make students feel stressed and anxious.

How to avoid turning Cold-Calling into a source of anxiety

Being called on by the teacher is stressful. Cold-Calling can sometimes induce anxiety and trigger overthinking or a fear or embarrassment.

So, to get the most out of using Cold-Calling in your classroom, it is important to ensure psychological safety and reduce the feeling of anxiety amongst your students. Try these strategies:

  1. Explain to students why you are Cold-Calling: Let your students know at the beginning of the year that you’ll be using Cold-Calling within the classroom to encourage active conversation. This can help them understand that there is nothing to fear and that they aren’t being picked on. They will know what to expect and will be used to the practice before long.
  2. Give students the opportunity to prepare: Leaving enough time between the question and answer allows students to think about their answer, making them feel more confident.
  3. Ask them to talk to their partner: Give students time to discuss potential answers with their peers before they present them to the class.
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Common Cold-Calling mistakes to avoid

It’s easy to forget the impact, good or bad, that Cold-Calling can have. It seems like a straightforward approach at its core.

However, using it properly and effectively is a lot harder than it first seems. To get the most out of Cold-Calling, avoid these five common mistakes:

1. Equating Cold-Calling with no hands up

Students putting their hands up is still useful as it allows you to get an idea of understanding. You don’t have to stick to a rigid routine; you can alternate between hands up and Cold-Calling.

2. Using Cold-Calling as a behaviour management technique

Cold-Calling is not a behaviour management technique, so be mindful when choosing students who you know aren’t paying attention as this can create a negative classroom environment.

3. The way you deal with incorrect answers

To deal with the awkwardness of a wrong answer, open out the discussion to the rest of the class and avoid focusing on the wrong answer.

4. Rushing Wait Times

There are many reasons for unintentionally rushing Wait Times – the period of time between asking a question and requesting an answer in the classroom. However, to allow students to think deeply about their answer and to make sure everyone in the classroom (not just the quickest) have come up with one, try leaving at least three seconds before calling on someone.

5. Over-relying on Cold-Calling

Balance Cold-Calling with other participatory techniques to modulate the pressure your students may feel.

Combining Cold-Calling with other questioning strategies

Cold-Calling isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s essential to use it in conjunction with other questioning strategies.

For example, Think, Pair, Share gives students time to think, broadens their knowledge and perspective, and increases their confidence. However, it is highly time consuming, so it may be useful to keep it for more complex questions.

Mini whiteboards are another useful way to get answers from your students, as it allows you to gauge their understanding in real time while adding another layer of engagement. This provides you with direct, bitesize information on what needs extra work and who may need extra support.

Final thoughts

Used thoughtfully, Cold-Calling can be a powerful tool. It has the potential to democratise classroom participation, promote active engagement and foster a more inclusive learning environment. Doing so can help maximise opportunities for Retrieval Practice and ensure high cognitive engagement throughout.

If you want to take your knowledge and application of Cold-Calling even further, check out our deep dive interview with Doug Lemov


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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