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Should You Cold-Call on Your Students?

Attending a class where discussion is always dominated by the same handful of confident students can be annoying. It’s not great for learning, either: Participation is a form of practice, and hearing from a broad selection of classmates enhances everyone’s education.

For those reasons, many professors use “cold calling,” picking out a student who did not volunteer to contribute. Or they might use the related practice of “random calling,” found mostly in large STEM classes, in which instructors select a student or group to hear from using a random-number generator, names from a hat, or a similar tool.

Professors who use these techniques aim for an interactive classroom. Often, they are trying to hold students accountable, support an inclusive classroom, or both.

Yet even among professors committed to those goals, the idea of using cold or random calling is “divisive,” says one researcher who has studied it. Picture John Houseman as professor Kingfield calling on law students in the 1973 film The Paper Chase: Cold calling can elicit a cold sweat. Anxiety can inhibit learning, and some professors worry about how the practice might especially affect students who are less likely to volunteer in the first place.

After a year when students had trouble getting to class, much less participating, lots of professors are looking for ways to make class time more engaging and worthwhile. What should they consider when weighing whether to add cold calling into the mix?

Public speaking provokes at least a bit of discomfort for many people: You’re the center of attention, and at risk of embarrassing yourself. The knowledge that at any moment you might be put on the spot could heighten and extend that feeling.

The discomfort of being called on in class, however, is not the same for everyone. Research suggests it’s worse for women, a finding that’s in keeping with other scholarship on shame. “Women are more concerned about making a fool of themselves in public,” says Judith E. Larkin, a professor emerita of psychology at Canisius College, who has studied the dynamic in a number of settings, including the classroom.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education