Will cold-calling increase voluntary class participation?

21 Sep

In the August Pedagogical Innovations Journal Club we discussed the article “Impact of Cold-Calling on Student Voluntary Participation” by Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt, published in the Journal of Management Education. With an understanding of cold-calling as– that is, calling on a student whose hand is not raised to provide his or her response to a question, or to contribute to a larger discussion – the author’s asked:

How does cold-calling affect student voluntary participation and their comfort with participating in class?

The Study

To study this, they observed 632 management accounting students enrolled in 16 different sections of a required course. Each instructor taught in their own style in terms of cold calling, with the range of the cold calling varying from 0 to 86% of students called upon.

As part of the study’s data gathering, students completed a pre-course survey with questions that asked how much they liked class discussion and how comfortable they felt when participating in class discussion. Those results were matched to the amount of cold-calling done by the instructor, which was measured by classroom observers at the beginning and again at the end of the semester.

The data indicated that students in the high cold-calling classes voluntarily participated significantly more in discussion than the students in the low cold-calling classes. Furthermore, students in the high cold-calling class reported the same comfort level of participating as their counterparts in the low cold-calling class. The authors conclude that

Cold-calling is a way to engage more students more actively in class discussions…without necessarily making them less comfortable…

Of course, there are limitations to this study. First of all, the authors looked at only one student population: undergraduates at a New England college of business. It is unknown if their findings would apply to other student populations and institutional types. Another concern is that the authors did not, for example, look for differences in effects related to students’ gender, race, or first languages, thus it is possible that these results do not hold for all students. Finally, the type of questions and the context in which they were asked was not recorded.

Our Discussion of Strategies & Techniques

Some questions raised in our discussion centered on cold-calling techniques. Based on examples shared by participants, we realized there were multiple ways to enact cold-calling in the classroom, some of which are listed below.

An instructor could:

  • Randomly generate student names for cold-calling e.g. notecards or spreadsheet.
  • Employ the A.P.C. technique: Ask the question. Pause so that all students formulate an answer in their mind because no one knows who will be called on). Then, Call on a student.
  • Cold-call students in the order they are seated e.g. cold-call one student and call on the student next to them for the next cold-call, and so on.
  • Cold-call and allow the student to confer with the students next to them for the answer.

Further discussion reflected that some audience members were re-examining their initial negative opinions about cold-calling. Some shared their experiences using cold-calling in their teaching and their experiences with cold-calling as a student, which led to a discussion about how to create an appropriate environment for cold-calling in teaching.

Helpfully, the authors provided three guidelines for using cold-calling, noted here with specific strategies for each suggestion:

  • Establish the expectation of participation from day one.
    • Tell students on the first day of class that you will occasionally cold-call in each class.
    • Tell students why you’re using the technique. For instance: to ensure a diversity of voices and opinions are heard, or to demonstrate that their classmates are good resources to tap into.
  • Provide opportunities to reflect and respond.
    • Give a moment or two for the student to think and respond after cold-calling on them.
    • Allow the student to consult with their neighbor.
    • Have everyone write down a response after asking a question, then cold-call an individual student. Like the APC technique described above, this prompts every student to come up with an answer to the question.
  • Create a supportive learning environment.
    • Whenever possible use student names when you call on them. Learning their names is a way to connect with your students and establish rapport.
    • Acknowledge all answers, even if they are wrong. This may simply be a thank you to the student or saying “okay” or “uh-huh” before calling on the next student.
    • Don’t belittle or embarrass students who don’t know the answer.
    • Don’t allow students to belittle or embarrass each other.

Another point raised in the Journal Club discussion was that most participants did not like the term “cold-calling.” Some felt that the word “cold” had a negative or “gotcha” connotation. Other suggestions offered were “random calling” or “instructor-initiated calling.”

What is the role of cold-calling as a teaching-learning strategy in your courses?

You will know best based on your subject, your experience, your learning goals, and your students. If you do decide to use cold-calling the suggestions above are likely to result in better learning, and comfort for your students.


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