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On cold calling

February 12, 2014

I can still remember the third quarter calculus course I took my senior year of high school. The professor had developed this teaching style of continuously cold calling on students to work through problems he wrote on the board. He’s start off a lecture by writing an integral on the board, and then methodically start calling on students:

“What is the next step in this problem, Mr. Smith?” he’d ask, and if that student didn’t know, he’d casually switch over to someone else, “Well, perhaps Ms. Johnson can help you out.”

He did this so frequently that even in a class of 25, you were basically guaranteed to get called on at least twice. I can remember dreading this class every day, especially the moment I would be called on and wouldn’t know the answer, and suddenly everyone would realize I was the calculus impostor from high school sitting in on a college level class. From that moment on, I’ve always stayed far away from cold calling students when I’m teaching.

Last night, Bowman Dickson gave an awesome presentation on developing conceptual understanding before introducing mathematical formalism to the Global Math Department *. In his presentation, Bowman mentioned the great value he finds in cold calling on students, especially to bring out a range of different responses when trying to introduce an idea conceptually. He also stressed the need to explain to students from the beginning why he’s cold calling, and never to use cold calling as a form of punishment to call out students who aren’t paying attention.

This totally got to reconsider about a practice I’d previously written off. What if I when I started the year, and we were discussing the value of making mistakes and having everyone contribute to the conversation, I talked about cold calling as a way of working to intentionally help build our class culture to encourage mistake making and to help me quickly gauge our understanding as a class. I think this would dramatically change the tone of a practice that I’ve found distasteful in the past, and I’m sure most students find stress inducing.

It also made me think of how many of the friction-inducing practices we do as teachers, like not directly answering student questions, and instead answering with questions, would probably far more palatable and effective if we simply took the time to explain their rational and build a bit of buy-in.

* Incidentally, the GMD has been on a tear with some incredible presentations lately. Check out @sophgermain‘s great discussion of race and privilege, @suevanhattum’s excellent presentation on math circles and becoming invisible in discussion, and Ben Orlin‘s teaching as a form of writing.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2014 9:30 am

    So glad that you’re loving GMD! Next up is Audrey Watters. Her talk is called “The Perils of Personalization,” and it’s going to be awesome.

  2. February 12, 2014 9:47 am

    i had the same reaction when i first heard about and experienced cold calling – and i think it can be used so poorly! i would add to the things that you mentioned above (explaining it beforehand and making it part of the classroom culture) that it’s especially good for particular situations. i like to use it in low-bar-most-things-are-right sort of situations (like what’s your observation? what do we already know about this?) or we-have-done-this-a-billion-times-practice sort of situations. i would be way less likely to use it while doing something super confusing or new (though i’m rethinking this now based on the idea of valuing a constructive mistake risk taking culture). thanks for your thoughts on this.

  3. February 12, 2014 11:59 am

    It seems to me the critical factor is to build an atmosphere of trust and openness where students (and the teacher!) don’t have a problem with not knowing, or not having mastered the topic. If we all knew it, why would we be learning? For me, that’s a top priority during the class formation, and it’s important to model and reinforce this. For example, I always thank students that give examples of typical or interestingly wrong answers, and emphasise to the class these “wrong” answers are just as helpful to our learning as correct answers. I will even ask, “what’s the wrong thing some people could do here?”

    Once you have a “safe environment”, where its ok to “not know”, then cold calling is a powerful technique that gives everyone an opportunity to participate, not just the louder or more confident students.

  4. February 12, 2014 8:11 pm

    I was NOT aware that it was called Cold Calling!! From very early in my career, I told my students “I do not do hands – DO NOT raise your hand unless you have a question or an important comment AND DO NOT call out answers.”
    “Tim, please, please remind us of what the units for electric charge are.”

    In every class, I made an effort to interact with every student. Many did not like it at first, but they got used to it. I think that was one reason that when I started using modeling, it was easy for me to have a discourse with my students.
    I started using Cold Calling to eliminate the problem of the “smart kids” dominating the classroom conversations, and to prevent the problem of girl’s fear of volunteering answers.

  5. February 13, 2014 7:56 am

    John – thanks for the reminder to be more transparent with my students about why I behave the way I do in class. What I’d add is that an explanation of this behavior in August doesn’t go very far. I need to remind them in October, remind them in December, etc. Discussions of class expectations – mine of them and theirs of mine – need to be a regular part of life.

  6. Leslie Cazeaux permalink
    March 11, 2014 5:36 pm

    Hi, my name is Leslie Cazeaux and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am taking a graduate level course focused on technology in the classroom, and we have been assigned certain blogs to read and comment on. I had never heard the term “cold calling” before, but understand your point of view with underutilizing it in the classroom, especially to prove a point or put a student on the spot. I like the idea of garnering different responses from the students, which could open up discussion not previously though of. Also, students are bright individuals and can bring a different tone and view to the subject matter.

  7. March 18, 2014 9:03 pm

    Hi, I’m Chea Driver, and I’m a student at the University of South Alabama. My instructor assigned me to your blog this week. I enjoyed your story from high school and found that it brought back memories of having the same fear of being called on and not knowing the answer. I, also like you, have not practiced this type of “cold calling” as a teacher for the same reasons you pointed out, but I do see the benefits if you are using it in a positive way, as a way to quickly gage student understanding. However, I’m not sure that I’m totally on board with the “cold calling.” I wouldn’t be comfortable using that method, and I am sure that would translate into students being uncomfortable as well. I think there are better ways to gage student understanding without putting the spotlight on them and embarrassing them in front of classmates. I’d have to test out the “cold calling” before I make a final decision though. Thanks for the post. It gave me an idea to think about.

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