Instructional Pitfall #3: Cold Cold Calling

The idea of cold calling is now a pretty standard practice in classrooms – the teacher asks a question and instead of having students volunteer to answer, we randomly call on a student.  Unfortunately, cold calling can often be warped from an engagement strategy into a ‘gotcha’ discipline strategy.  When done correctly, it keeps kids on their toes and engaged in a positive way.  If you’ve had those moments, though, when you feel like a student isn’t paying attention and so you cold call that student knowing they won’t get the answer right, you’ve slipped into cold cold calling, which is a culture killer.  When we call on students as a ‘gotcha’ and put them on the spot when they’re not paying attention, it embarrasses them and wastes valuable class time.  We don’t want to motivate kids to engage because they don’t want to get shamed in front of the class.  We want engagement to be a by-product of strong class culture and investment in the material.  Here’s how to use cold calling to support the engagement and avoid the ‘gotcha.’

  • Teach it as a class routine – If you officially explain to students what cold calling is, how it’s going to work, and that you’re going to be using it regularly to check for their understanding and keep everyone on their toes, then it’s less likely to be seen as a ‘gotcha.’


  • Keep it random – If you’re looking around the room to ‘randomly’ call on a student for a question, it’s not random.  This is where we can slip into cold cold calling and call on the student who’s not fully on task or maybe the students we know will get the answers right because we want to move on.  In order to keep it random we have to have a system for it.  Maybe it’s a cup of popsicle sticks with student names on them or maybe it’s a class roster on a clipboard and we just blindly point to a name and then call it.  I’ve also seen teachers number the student desks and then pick a number.


  • Announce when cold calling is starting – to avoid the ‘gotcha,’ let kids know, “okay I’ve got some questions for you and we’re going to cold call all of them so let’s make sure we’re ready.” This way they know if they’re called on, it’s random, they need it could happen, and so there’s less risk that any negative feelings will come up for any of your students when they’re called on.


  • Capitalize on wrong answers – if someone gets a cold call question wrong, thank them for sharing their answer and point out that it’s a good thing when we catch misunderstandings so we can correct them.  Or you could say something like, “Oh good, I’m glad we caught that.  I’ll bet many of you have that same misunderstanding, so let’s fix it.”  Then explain the correct answer or have another student help out.  In these scenarios we’re actually building culture by making mistakes in a comfortable setting.


  • Use wait time – Especially in a cold call setting, don’t forget to give students some think time.  If we ask a question and then immediately call on a student expecting an immediate answer, we’re creating a stressful environment where kids can be nervous.  And if students don’t have time to process the question, we’ll get lots of wrong answers or stunned faces and so assume they don’t understand when maybe they just needed 5-10 seconds to think about it.

A huge shout-out to Uncommon Schools & Teach Like a Champion for training many of our instructional leaders on classroom strategies like cold calling!

Also, if you’re in YES Prep's Teaching Excellence program, you’ll have the opportunity to practice cold calling this weekend at your Professional Learning Saturday!

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