Commander King - EdTech Blog

Cold Call

August 25, 2020

I first learned about “cold call” after reading Teach Like a Champion prior to my first year of teaching.

Here’s a quick example:

There’s a lot that I initially liked about the technique. It:

  1. Communicates that the teacher has high expectations for every student.

  2. Provides a wider variety of students the opportunity to answer questions, not only those who actively volunteer.

  3. Quickly and somewhat randomly assesses whether students have understood the material.

When I first tried this technique, it did not go well. Like many first year teachers, I struggled with managing my class effectively and creating a positive learning environment. As a result, sometimes when I randomly called on students, they would accuse me of purposely calling on them to embarrass them.

Knowing my second year would be improved, I still wondered whether I was truly being random in my cold calling or if there were certain biases that unconsciously made me call on some students more than others. I also hesitated to call on students who might be embarrassed about not knowing the answer and had to actively fight this hesitation.

After my first year, I made a few modifications to the cold call technique that tried to address these concerns.

Totally Random

That summer, I learned about using popsicle sticks to randomly call students. In this technique, each student has their name on a popsicle stick in a class jar. When the teacher needs to call on a student, they choose a popsicle stick.

As one of the teachers mentions above, students no longer can complain about being “picked on” since the choice is random. I also appreciate how the teacher spins it as the student being “destined to answer the question” . This makes being chosen seem more like an opportunity instead of a punishment.

I ended up using some index cards and slotted them into card game sleeves that I still had from my failed Magic the Gathering career. Each card had a student’s name and for each class, I used a different set of colored sleeves to differentiate my classes.

No Tricks up These Sleeves

I ultimately decided to assign card drawing duties to a different student at the start of every class. When class began. I drew one card and passed the deck of cards to the person selected. I initially started this procedure because I found carrying around a deck of cards to different locations to be unwieldy, but I soon discovered a couple of additional benefits.

  1. Students really enjoyed being selected “card master” for the day.

  2. Having students pick the card ruled out all possibility that I could target a student. If I picked each card, I could still theoretically call on a student other than the student on the card.

Setting Expectations for Cold Call

Besides ensuring that the selection process was truly random, my students became more receptive to cold calling because at the beginning of the year, I emphasized that cold call was my way of:

  1. Checking whether a random group of students understood what I was teaching. If a student got a question wrong, it was my fault and I need to know as soon as possible.

  2. Showing the class that I believed everyone can understand the material and answer the questions I ask.

It is important to communicate that the random calling is done because you care about the students and not because you’re trying to “get them” when they’re vulnerable.

When to Use Cold Call

In the video above, the teacher asks students to solve quite cognitively intense questions with cold call. I, however, found cold call most effective when working to solve a multistep problem where I could pepper students with quick questions about one specific step of a process. For example, imagine checking student understanding for solving an algebra problem:

3x + 10 = 16

Oversimplified Cold Call Example

Teacher: So to solve this problem, what’s our overall objective? Card.

Card Master (CM): Raul.

Raul: We need to get x alone.

Teacher: Got it. So what should be my first step? Card.

CM: Jasmine.

Jasmine: Subtract 10 from both sides.

Teacher: Ok, what do I get when I do that? Card.

CM: Ana.

Ana: 3x = 6.

Teacher: Ok. What’s next? Card.

CM: Roberto.

Roberto: Divide both sides by 3.

Teacher: Ok, what do we get if we do that, Roberto?

Roberto: x = 2.

Teacher: Hmm… does that seem reasonable? Card.

CM: Michelle.

Michelle: Yeah, 6 divided by 3 is 2. So x should be two. Stop playing, Mr. King.

Teacher: Oh, you’re right! That’s my bad. :)

Within a couple minutes, the above rapid-fire conversation involved five students in a process that traditionally might only provide one student the opportunity to answer. While the downside is that we don’t know for sure that any one student can completely solve the problem, we are able to get some understanding of potential blockers from multiple students. This is a tradeoff I’m willing to make most of the time. Generally, I’ll also follow up a problem like this with some solo work time, which gives better insight into the whole process (the traditional “I do, we do, you do”).

I also enjoyed adding in metacognitive questions throughout the cold call, particularly asking students whether each step seems reasonable. It is important to do so both when the students are correct and incorrect. Otherwise, just asking the question is a giveaway that the previous student made an error. It also communicates to students that sanity checking answers is a good practice whether they think they’re right or wrong.

Final Reflection

Cold calling became a staple in my classroom throughout all my years of teaching and it’s a technique I’d implement again if I returned to the classroom. It requires such a small investment, but has significant benefits. It:

  1. Communicates a clear expectation that everyone can understand the material and will be asked to contribute.

  2. Includes more students in answering questions compared to a volunteer based system.

  3. Minimizes the time needed to call on a student (compared to waiting for students to raise hands, providing sufficient wait time, and finally choosing a student).

  4. Eliminates teacher biases that may unconsciously surface if a teacher “randomly” chooses a student.

Generally, for any technique, I think there are tradeoffs. Here are a couple that have some merit.

  1. Stress out students who do not handle pressure or being put on the spot.

  2. Cold call will not work if the students do not already trust the teacher. In such cases, they may perceive cold call as a “gotcha” and lash out when called on, even if it’s random.

In terms of stressing out students, I was fortunate to not have students who were so pressured by cold call that they consistently refused to answer. There were days here and there where students kindly communicated they were having a tough day and I excused them for the day, but those situations can be handled on case by case basis. But if a student were visibly having issues with cold calling, I do think it’s important to accommodate and finding alternative approaches to having them participate.

For teachers already struggling with classroom management or building strong relationships with their students, I would not recommend cold call as it may exacerbate the situation. Students need strong relationships with their teachers to fully buy into cold calling.

Opportunity Calls

Perhaps my biggest complaint about cold call has to do with its name. It’s true that if done with the intention of being a “gotcha”, it can create a cold war between the student and teacher. If it’s done with the intention of supporting the student, however, it can communicate a sense of belief and encourage more widespread participation. In my last year of teaching, I started introducing the procedure as “Opportunity Calls”. Students always complained about the name, but I like to think that they eventually warmed up to the many opportunities to shine.

Written by Jeff King. To stay updated on new blog posts, subscribe.