Cold calling

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Cold calling refers to a protocol used in classroom-style instruction settings (or other similar settings) where the explainer (instructor) calls on individual learners (students) to answer questions posed by the explainer on a regular basis. The key feature of cold call is the unpredictability about who will get called for a particular question, or equivalently, the unpredictability for each individual about when he or she will get called.

Cold calling (or rather, whether and how it is used) is an important element of classroom instruction as performance.

Related methods


  • Cold calling is advantageous primarily because it dramatically increases the extent to which students are required (or at any rate nudged) to paying attention and actively thinking about the material being covered in class. With a method such as voluntary participation, only the students who choose to participate and think they have a shot at getting the answers will participate. On the other hand, with cold calling, all students, knowing that they can be called upon, are listening closely and working out the answers.
  • Cold calling might also help break the ice in the classroom and make students more comfortable interacting with each other and the instructor. If executed well, people can feel more confident.
  • Cold calling is a great way for everybody to get to know each other, connecting name, face, voice, and some features of their answers.
  • Instructors have a constant and regularly updated idea of how well the class is understanding specific ideas, and is therefore less likely to succumb to the illusion of transparency.
  • Students have a constant and regularly updated idea of how well they and their peers are understanding specific material, and are therefore less likely to succumb to the double illusion of transparency. Note however, that cold calling using questions that are not of diagnostic use could cement, rather than shatter, the double illusion of transparency.


  • If poorly executed, cold calling could generate resentment among students, leading to students missing class, or adopting an adversarial attitude to the instructor.
  • Cold calling could be construed as an abuse of the instructor's authority or power over the students.
  • Cold calling could disorient instructors and students if it shatters the illusion of transparency, causing a lecture to go off-plan.
  • Cold calling could waste a lot of time.
  • If students sense that poor performance on cold calling will cause the instructor to go slower and cover less material, they are incentivized to perform poorly.

Worst practices and pitfalls

Cold calling is generally viewed negatively due to some perceived connotations. However, most of the negative connotations are generally avoidable. Some pitfalls to avoid with cold calling are:

  • Do not be judgmental or negative at students for passing on cold call questions, or for answering them incorrectly. If student performance on a particular cold call question is cause for concern (e.g., you feel the student doesn't understand a basic prerequisite for the course), then talk to the student privately after class in a non-threatening manner.
  • Do not spend too much time on a particular student (with all others' eyes on that student), even in an apparently positive manner, because some students may react negatively but hide it.
  • Do not force students to participate against their will. Offer students reasonable opt-out opportunities, either at the beginning of class or at the begining of the course (note that in settings where you want to teach classroom discipline in addition to the subject matter, you might disallow opting out; see no opt out).
  • If overall performance on cold call questions is bad, do not blame the students at large or otherwise lose your cool. Point out that the cold calling has helped you discover an area of student weakness, and cooperatively attempt to find ways to remedy the problems so that you can proceed. Take part of the blame ("I didn't explain this clearly enough" or "I'll try to think of a better way of explaining it") to make the cooperative aspect more salient than any confrontational connotations students might read.
  • Do not use cold calling as a gotcha to catch students who you think were not paying attention. This doesn't mean you shouldn't cold call students who you think weren't paying attention, but you shouldn't do so with the explicit purpose of shaming them publicly. If they admit that they weren't paying attention, then be gracious about it (for instance, repeat the question, or let them pass on it, promising to come back to them soon).

Parameters relevant to individual cold call instances

The implementation of cold calling can be tweaked in a number of ways. Some of these are described below.

Reveal point

The instructor can choose different possibilities in time for when to reveal who is being called to answer the question. Below are some possibilities:

Reveal point Advantage Disadvantage
Before stating the question to the class The individual student can listen clearly to the question and need not ask the instructor to repeat It forgoes one of the main benefits of cold calling: all students are trying to think of the answer to every question. Instead, since the name of the person answering is specified in advance, other students may reduce their level of attention.
Within a few seconds of stating the question to the class All students have had time to hear and process the question Individual students may not have been paying concentrated attention since they didn't know for sure that it's a question they might answer. Thus, the student who is asked the question may ask the instructor to repeat it.
Give a chunk of time to everybody to work out the answer (this may involve flipping through recent or earlier notes, or doing calculations, or taking time to formulate thoughts), and then reveal who'll be called All students have had time to hear and process the question and attempt an answer. Thus, they can grade themselves by proxy upon hearing the correct answer.
The technique can also be combined with in-class desk work either before or after the cold call.
This takes more time, and students may slack off in that timespan of a few seconds if the material seems too easy or too difficult.

Dealing with non-response

The instructor can choose different possibilities for what to do if the student says "pass" or "I have no idea" or "not sure" or something equally non-informative. The strategies include:

Strategy Advantage Disadvantage
Press the student to try more (this may be accompanied with allotting a bit of extra time, providing a hint or cue, or modifying the question to make it somewhat easier) sends students a message that partial progress is possible
avoids sending the message that students can easily pass
in some cases, the student just isn't equipped to answer the question, and pressing the student can waste time and generate resentment.
Deprives other students of opportunity to answer, and therefore deprives them of incentives to work towards an answer.
Cold call another student results in more efficient reaching of the answer
sends message to students that they should keep thinking about how to solve the question even if somebody else is being asked the question.
sends message to students that they can easily "pass" on questions.
Switch to seeking voluntary participation results in more efficient reaching of the answer undermines part of the psychological pressure of cold calling (and the incentives it generates for paying attention), to a greater extent than the two preceding methods
Students may not be willing to volunteer answers
Return to either revealing the answer or re-teaching a relevant portion that makes the answer easier to obtain efficient use of time if a fixed amount of material needs to be covered undermines the psychological pressure of cold calling and the incentives it generates for paying attention.

Dealing with responses

Students may give answers that are partly or wholly correct. They may give partial answers with promise. There are multiple strategies for dealing with the variety of answers possible.

Strategy Advantage Disadvantage
Press the student more, allowing the student to completely arrive at the answer. sends a "can-do" message
encourages partial progress
deprives other students of the incentive to work out the answer
may take too much time
Do not immediately reveal your opinion on the response, but treat it as provisionally correct and work through the consequences. In case it is wrong, you should arrange the "work through the consequences" part in a manner that the contradiction emerges soon enough for the student to realize it on his or her own. gives the student (and others) the opportunity to debug and determine the point of failure may take more time
people may get confused about what parts are correct and what parts are the consequences of the incorrect statement. The confusion may be temporary, but it may also result in later confusion if people note down the incorrect step. This can be remedied by clearly marking the incorrect part (if writing it on the board) and reminding students to update their notes to reflect that that part was incorrect.
Do not immediately reveal your opinion on the response (i.e., whether it was correct, complete, etc.). Instead, seek answers from other students (using additional rounds of cold calling, polling, or voluntary participation). all students continue thinking about the question, and also learn to evaluate the plausibility of existing answers takes more time, particularly if the original answer is correct
Reveal minimal information (such as "right" or "wrong") and, if wrong, solicit more responses through cold calling, polling, or voluntary participation all students continue thinking about the problem, but the possibility space narrows somewhat, allowing students to discard some conjectures and hone in on others Takes more time compared to just revealing the answer
destroys the suspense compared to soliciting multiple answers before revealing "right" or "wrong"
Reveal the answer immediately takes less time reduces opportunities for students to think about and arrive at the answer

Student and question selection parameters

Matching students with questions

One of the harder problems in effective cold calling is to determine how students and questions should be matched. There are two broad strategies:

Strategy Advantage Disadvantage
Match by difficulty, i.e., the distribution of questions a student sees is adjusted to the competency demonstrated by the student. This is done adaptively, rather than based on a static assessment of the student. students get questions they can reasonably attempt, but that are not too easy for them students quickly "place" themselves based on the difficulty of the questions they are getting. Students getting easy questions correctly infer that the instructor has a low opinion of their competency, and this may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy (the pygmalion effect in reverse).
Give similar questions to everybody fair and easy to implement students may feel embarrassed at frequently getting questions they are stuck at, and others may be bored at getting questions that are too easy.

Frequency of calling for individual students

Should all students be called equally? There are two broad strategies:

Strategy Advantage Disadvantage
adjust the degree of cold calling to the degree of enthusiasm displayed by the student makes for a more harmonious interaction. Some students are okay with being cold called occasionally, but not frequently. Others love to be cold called. students who are cold called infrequently lose part of the benefits of "always being on one's toes" that are conferred by cold calling.
cold call everybody equally fair and equitable some students may resent being cold called (one solution is to cold call everybody equally except students who explicitly opt out; however, this fails to address the needs of students who would like to be cold called but only occasionally).

Allow for opting in or out

Instructors may give students the option of opting out of being cold called, either during a given lecture (for instance, if the student is feeling sick or stressed out) or for the entire course.

Some instructors may make cold calling an "opt-in" feature. However, this runs the risk of very few people choosing to opt in and the system thereby not being too different from voluntary participation.

Difficulty distribution of questions

The questions used for cold calling can range based on parameters such as:

  • Competency level needed to answer.
  • Time needed to answer.
  • How far back in time the tested ideas were covered (easy means things that were either covered very recently or that are part of the student's firm knowledge background; hardest is the stuff that was done a few days ago but that the student has not yet mastered).

Participation grade

Some instructors may make performance on cold calling as part of a participation grade. Other instructors may choose to not use performance on cold calling as an input to determining the grade at all.

Atypical forms of cold calling

Cold calling about self-evaluation

The questions or comments? question, instead of being addressed to the class at large, may be used as a cold calling question. Similar cold call questions include:

  • Do you feel like you understood this?
  • Do you think you will be able to solve this type of question?

Such self-evaluation questions might on occasion be followed by demands for further explanation in the case that the student says that he/she has understood the material, and on occasion be followed by a repetition of the material for the whole class in the case that the student confesses confusion. This form of cold calling works best if it is clear to the student that the instructor genuinely wants to know and is not merely looking for a pre-determined answer. However, the notorious unreliability of self-evaluation, as well as the double illusion of transparency, mean that mere subjective self-evaluation should not be weighted too highly.

Cold calling about other forms of subjective experience

This may include questions like:

  • How does the topic compare in difficulty to topic X?
  • Do you like this?

Such questions are best not overdone, but they can be useful as an occasional complement to the rest of the class material.

Investment and effort needed

Effort on the teacher's part

While some preparation on the teacher's part can make cold calling more effective, the bare minimum of preparation needed for cold calling to be effective is quite low.

  • It is preferable that the teacher either know the names and faces of all students, or have access to a printed photo roster that he or she can scan quickly. Pointing to students for each cold call instance can be clumsy. However, this is not a dealbreaker, and teachers who want to create a precedent of using cold calling right from the beginning should not wait to master the names and faces of all students before beginning. Eye contact and pointing might be necessary in the beginning.
  • Having a sense of the cognitive profiles of students can be helpful if matching students to questions based on the level of difficulty. However, this again is not a necessity.
  • Some teachers keep track (using tally marks or other means) of how much they are cold calling each student. This can help them figure out if they are cold calling students equally. However, this again is optional and may not be suited to all circumstances.
  • Some teachers plan beforehand who they will cold call when (i.e., they include cold calling in their class screenplay), but this is not necessary and its advantages over making cold calling decisions in real time is unclear.

In practice

Identification as a technique used by good teachers

In his book Teach Like A Champion Doug Lemov identifies cold calling as one of the 49 techniques used by champion teachers. Lemov's book is targeted at school level teachers.

Effect on voluntary participation

There are conflicting a priori theoretical intuitions regarding the effect of cold calling on voluntary participation. On the one hand, by breaking the ice, cold calling may encourage voluntary participation. On the other hand, cold calling may discourage voluntary participation by substituting away from it. A study claims to find a positive relationship between cold calling and voluntary participation over time.