The awkward silence is the worst. A teacher asks a question and no one responds. Whether it’s a lack of interest or a lack of coffee, trying to teach an unresponsive class is by no means easy. However, the practice of cold-calling does not improve student participation, nor does it encourage students to complete their assignments. Instead, it creates anxiety within the classroom and distracts students from learning. They end up focusing on preparing a generic answer to repeat instead of remaining engaged and listening to others speaking up in class.
When an instructor calls on a student whose hand is not raised to answer a question (a “cold-call”), it forces students into a vulnerable position. If they get it right, it looks like they were avoiding participation. If they get it wrong, it’s embarrassing. This furthers the feeling of isolation instead of cultivating participation in the classroom. It is difficult for students to learn when they constantly have to worry that they will be called on at any moment. While this practice may seem to encourage attentiveness, in reality it just creates an atmosphere of anxiety.
Every student learns and participates in a different way. Some students who are quiet in class go the extra mile in their assignments, essays and small discussion groups to show their engagement with the material. Others may talk frequently in class but not produce the best work. Some can do both. Regardless, professors shouldn’t be imposing an unnatural or uncomfortable situation on their students. Obviously, public speaking is an incredibly important skill and getting out of one’s comfort zone is a part of college. But there is a difference between doing something slightly odd or different and having anxiety, which is what many students experience when they are called upon to answer a question without warning.
Cold-calling has also been proven to be ineffective in augmenting participation. In a study conducted by Northeastern University in 2012, results showed that students were more likely to participate in voluntary classes than in classes where students were cold-called. However, the study did show that the comfort levels of students were not severely affected by cold-calling, and therefore the authors support cold-calling as an instructional strategy. While this study found that student comfort levels were not affected, it begs the question as to why this technique is still utilized considering it also decreases participation.
Often times the most insightful comments which deepen class discussion are produced from a personal motivation to speak up. When students are forced to answer on demand, they say the first thing that comes to mind. The quality of the discussion suffers even if technically, there is more participation.
In my experience, the general discomfort of a temporarily silent classroom is more palatable than the tangible anxiety when a professor cold-calls. Now, before anyone complains about how sensitive students are, my only point is that this technique does more harm than good. Since cold-calling does not achieve its purpose of increasing participation, even though it doesn’t technically harm students, there’s no point to it.
There are so many other ways to engage students. For discussion based classes, professors could give students the opportunity to speak in small groups with their peers first before holding a class-wide discussion. Grading students on participation throughout the quarter is another option — although I dislike this method as well, requiring verbal participation will at least allow students to speak on their own terms through the quarter, rather than constantly worrying about being singled out to discuss a topic they don’t feel comfortable speaking about. And most importantly, instructors should trust that what they’re teaching is interesting and most students want to be there.
Caitlin Antonios is a second-year English and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at email@example.com