Freeze Cold Calling

Cold calling is not a productive teaching strategy.

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I am in the middle of taking notes for my algebra class. Suddenly, my teacher asks me, “What is the sine of 675 degrees?” I freeze; I should know the answer, but right now, I can’t even remember how to approach the question. This isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s an animal response, similar to how a deer freezes when it is caught in headlights. Cold calling does not test whether or not a student is paying attention. Instead, it puts unnecessary pressure on the student that may even lead to additional stress and poor mental health. In my experience, cold calling makes the classroom feel unwelcoming and judgmental.

According to Harvard Business Publishing Editing, cold calling is an “art.” It has three key objectives, one of which is to “establish and reinforce high [student] expectations.” In reality, it is just a tactic to catch students off guard. While sometimes this can produce a very genuine response, students often feel threatened by such high expectations. When there is a definitive answer to a question (e.g. math), it can be especially embarrassing for a student if they have to admit to the entire class that they do not know an answer. In open-ended discussions, there is greater pressure to sound “smart” and analytical. In essence, cold calling serves as a punishment for being confused.

Harvard Business also highlights the three steps to cold calling effectively:

  1. Choose a “cold call candidate.”
  2. “How cold?” (The teacher must decide whether they will call on the student with no notice, known as the coldest form, or with the chance to think about the question, known as a warm call.)
  3. Decide how long you will continue discussing the question with that particular student.

While some teachers use cold calling to encourage participation and paying attention, that doesn’t mean it is beneficial. In practice, teachers often choose the same student over and over again, which can make the student feel incompetent or targeted. Sometimes, it may even feel as if they are struggling more than others because of the attention the teacher is giving them. Singling out a particular student can make them feel insecure and resent being in the class. However, I understand that every student responds to cold calling differently. Some studies show that cold calling can help students learn to take risks. Speaking for myself, being cold called on constantly has made me overthink even the simplest of answers. Before, I never felt the need to worry about answering incorrectly, but now I am much more self-conscious about my answers.

In addition, studies indicate that there may be biases that are not easily predictable. Studies seem to suggest that female students volunteer more answers when the instructor is female. Likewise, male students are more comfortable answering male teachers, and in general, studies have consistently demonstrated that males are much more confident in public speaking. This is not to say that classes and instructors should be gender-segregated but rather that there may be deep-rooted predispositions at work when a student always stumbles in a certain teacher’s class, and this may have nothing to do with whether or not they are paying attention.

Teachers should shift away from absolute cold calling. Instead, they should pose a question and give students time to prepare an answer (known as warm calling) before choosing a respondent. To make the classroom a more comfortable place to learn, teachers should privately ask the student if they want to participate before calling on them in front of the entire class. This gives them the opportunity to begin formulating an answer without being under pressure. Calling on students who have not volunteered is an unreliable way to gauge whether or not students are paying attention and need additional help on a topic. To check whether or not students are paying attention, teachers can review student notes and ask them to submit a little bit of writing about what they are thinking. Students should not be punished for being confused or anxious about responding in front of the entire class.

Continuing a discussion after a student responds to the question is not an issue. The important thing is for the student to feel comfortable. Pressure can negatively impact how well a student learns. Schools such as Stuyvesant, which already has high-pressure classes, need to focus on making the classroom feel more inviting to ensure that students can learn better.