The question appears simple: Should, or when should, professors engage in “cold calling,” meaning calling on students in (an undergraduate) class when the students have not volunteered? Like most discussions of pedagogy and ethics, the question involves some issues and complexities. It’s hard for me to have (or understand) blanket policies (“I never call on students if they haven’t raised their hands,” or, “I always call on students—how else will they learn anything?”). I and most professors fall somewhere in between; we have our preferences, and our reasons, for what we do.
Here are some arguments against cold calling:
Here are some arguments for cold calling:
Early in my career I may have been too unsure of the benefits of cold calling, and too tied to the material I wanted to “cover” in class. Thus, I hardly ever called on students. Now, however, I am more in touch with the skills I want to teach (in addition to content), so the arguments in favor of calling are more persuasive. (But even when I first started teaching I was bothered by students who remained passive and didn’t take the opportunity to participate. To differentiate between those students who chose to remain silent from those who simply weren’t paying attention, I would ask this: “Raise your hand if you don’t want to answer.” That way, I was at least able to have students take responsibility for not answering.)
Considerations for an Enlightened Policy on Cold Calling
Here are a few things I think about when deciding what to do in my courses:
Here’s one strategy I’ve developed recently: I write each student’s name on an index card and shuffle the cards (You see where I’m headed…). Next, I ask a question. I may ask a few “review” questions to set the stage, but most of my questions ask for application (or creativity, or evaluation) and have no single “right answer.” Then I give students a little time to formulate an answer. Sometimes I’ll have them talk in pairs or groups for a few minutes as well. It’s only after students have been thinking for a bit that I pick the top card to see who answers. Sometimes I’ll say something like, “If you don’t know, make something up like you would on a mid-term, and then we’ll all help you develop better answers.” The student takes their best shot, knowing that others will help if necessary.
At that point I have lots of options: I can ask a follow-up to the same student, pick another card and have somebody else answer the follow-up, or simply have students volunteer to expand on the first answer.
I’ve enjoyed using this strategy, in part because:
What do you think of my method? When might it work best—and when might it really suck?
What would be (is) your policy about cold calling on students?
Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).
© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved