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The Case of Classroom Cold Calling: What Do You Think?

Should professors call on students who don’t volunteer to speak in class?

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:

  • Some students are naturally quieter, and some learn best by listening.
  • It might be harmful for some students to be “put on the spot.” They may feel intimidated—perhaps too intimidated to come to class or pay attention. I’d be violating the principle of nonmaleficence.
  • Why not reward those students who want to answer and leave the others alone? Shouldn’t I respect students’ autonomy by allowing them to choose?
  • Why bother cold calling? What I have to say is more important than student contributions anyway. Right?

Here are some arguments for cold calling:

  • Students can practice their thinking and get immediate feedback. Thinking and oral communication are useful job skills that students should learn in college. I’m actualizing the principle of beneficence. This is why there’s less of an issue in graduate classes: The connection to job skills is clear.
  • Students learn that they need to be active in class, take responsibility for their learning, and contribute to their own (and their classmates’) education.
  • In terms of autonomy, students don’t have the right not to take tests or write papers. Why do they have the choice about responding to my inquiries in class?
  • Why not cold call? The more students talk the less I have to prepare. Right?


From a work by Esther Rumaner. Used with permission of the artist.

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:

  • I tie my policy to course goals. For every course I teach I need to judge how important “speaking in class” and related skills are. If they’re important, I need to list them as course goals.
  • I need to make the experience beneficial to students, especially because I’m teaching live and not on line. This has at least three implications: First, I should help students learn how to speak and respond in class. Second, I should create a supportive atmosphere where help each other and take risks, rather than a punitive atmosphere where students feel inhibited. Third, my questions should help students create knowledge and develop their skills rather than just see if they’ve done the readings (I use papers and quizzes to do that—more in a future post!).
  • According to the principle of utility, I should decide whether the potential benefits to students outweigh the potential harm. I should also mitigate or prevent those harms.
  • I need to treat students equally, according to the ethical principle of justice. For example, I should avoid the temptation to call on students I may not like, who may appear not to be paying attention, etc.

One Approach

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:

  • Students perceive it as fair. And it is. All students have an equal opportunity to learn what I’m trying to teach.
  • It helps create the supportive and collaborative atmosphere I want.
  • The stakes (and potential harms) are low and the potential benefit is high. I can grade students (especially at the beginning of the course) for the fact of their participation, and how they help others.
  • I get information about the kinds of thinking students are doing, and the mistakes I can correct, before the exam.
  • Students are more likely to be thinking about the question rather than assuming (or praying) that somebody else will volunteer.
  • Students are practicing answering the type of questions they might get on the job.
  • So far, it’s been adaptable to a range of courses and levels—from freshman to graduate.

Bottom Line

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