Five Tips for ‘Cold Calling’ in the Classroom

A common occurrence in classrooms is for the teachers to ask questions and volunteers raise their hand, often keen to answer or share their opinion. “Hands up” questioning in the classroom allows students to willingly participate and engage in the lesson—but this can be a flawed approach! There are several reasons why relying on hands up during classroom questioning is not always effective. These include the following:

  • It tends to be the same students answering questions every lesson as they are confident, articulate, and enthusiastic.
  • Other students can avoid engaging with questions and rely on their peers to answer on their behalf.
  • Hands up is not an inclusive approach, as not everyone has to participate or answer questions.
  • This approach is misleading for teachers’ assessment of the students’ learning. A small sample of students isn’t reflective of the whole class and their knowledge and understanding.

An alternative to hands up is cold calling. This term, in this context, was coined by Teach Like A Champion author Doug Lemov. Cold calling still involves asking students questions, but with a no-hands-up approach. Instead, a teacher asks a question and all students are given time to think and prepare an answer. Then, the teacher can call on any member of the class to respond.

Below is a short video clip of cold calling taking place in the classroom, followed by five tips for using cold calling in your classroom.

Five Tips for Cold Calling in the Classroom:

  1. Keep cold calling warm. As Lemov explains in the video above, cold calling is not about “catching students out” or putting them on the spot to feel uncomfortable. cold calling should be about enthusiastically encouraging all students to participate in the lesson and be heard. This can be a fantastic opportunity to provide feedback to students based on their responses. The use of names, instead of pointing at students, can also make cold calling feel more friendly and personable.
  2. Ask again. This was illustrated in the video clip when the teacher called on the same student two questions in a row. It is important to ask a student a subsequent question to ensure learners remain focused. If students believe they won’t be called on again to answer a question, then they may switch off and stop paying attention. Allow wait time for all students (including those who have already responded!) to rehearse and prepare an answer, prior to selecting the student to answer.
  3. Scaffold questions to support learners. Teachers should be mindful of the cognitive bias, the so-called “curse of knowledge”. This is where an individual assumes that other people possess the knowledge they have. Teachers should not make assumptions, but instead check for knowledge and understanding. This can be achieved effectively through questioning. Questions can begin with factual recall and short answer questions; they can then progress to “higher-order” thinking and more complex questions that require an extended answer.
  4. Observe others and seek feedback. cold calling requires practice and thoughtful reflection, just like many other teaching techniques and strategies. It can be very helpful to observe other teachers using cold calling in their classroom. This may include watching videos, like the example above, or it can include observing colleagues. In addition to observing others, it can be useful to gain feedback through someone observing your questioning in the classroom. If you have access to The Great Teaching Toolkit, the video observation tool is already at your disposal. Video observation tools enable teachers to capture their practice, reflect, and seek feedback from trusted colleagues; this can facilitate high-impact conversations around strengths and strategies to try in the classroom.
  5. Explain cold calling to students. If a teacher is introducing cold calling to their classroom, they should explain the rationale to their students. Students may not initially like cold calling, particularly as some students have become accustomed to volunteering and sharing their answers! On the other hand, other members of the class may have been content to not engage in question-and-answer discussions. Students may develop misconceptions if this strategy is not explained clearly to them. They may believe the teacher is being unfair by asking a question without hands up. Instead, students should know the importance of everyone contributing in a lesson, not just a few. Indeed, asking all members of the class to think hard about a question promotes more learning for everyone—it’s actually more fair than a hands up approach!

When cold calling is used regularly, it can become an established classroom routine that supports all students’ learning. This should also happen in a supportive learning environment, with a classroom culture where everyone can feel safe and secure—even when they’re wrong or don’t know an answer. These five tips can help you adapt cold calling to suit your classroom, in a way that encourages both support and hard thinking.

Are you looking to improve your questioning in the classroom? The online Questioning course as part of The Great Teaching Toolkit provides an evidence-based overview of why and how effective questioning helps promote and assess thinking, and what great teachers do to use it effectively. 

Showing 3 comments
  • Hanorah Murphy

    This is a very helpful, short read for my staff. At present we do not have enough consistency across L&T and this is my first trial. To have evidence to back implementation is crucial . Thank you

  • Chris Hansen

    On bullet point 2, line three “is” should be replaced with “question.”

    • Jack Deverson

      Thank you!

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