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Quest for the Best Questioning Strategy: Cold Calling vs. Hand Raising

Students Thinking.jpgA lot of students shrugged their shoulders when I called on them to answer questions at the beginning of the year. Others mumbled, "I don't know." Then there were those kids who let me have it: "Man, I don't know. Stop calling on me!"

But I never did stop calling on them. And after a few weeks, most of those shruggers and shouters were earnestly answering my questions. That's how long it took them to adjust to my questioning policy: only raise your hand when you want to ask a question, not when you want to answer one. It was as pointless for students to volunteer as it was for them to try to hide, since I addressed each question to a student of my choice by name, and called on all students equally.

This "cold call" approach is a lot different from what I had done as a new teacher and what a lot of teachers still do: only call on hand raisers, except to cold call students for "gotcha" purposes--i.e., direct questions to students by name when they're not paying attention. But eventually I discovered how counterproductive this is, since it's more likely to humiliate, agitate, and/or alienate students than motivate them to pay attention. It's also wrong to make attentive students wait for their classmates to respond (or not respond) to questions they're unprepared to answer--and, in many cases, didn't even hear.

Such lack of preparation leads to one of three reasons I favor cold calling over hand raising: engagement. Ideally, of course, every lesson would be so captivating that all students are on the edge of their seats. But we're talking about thirty kids with thirty sets of interests, so there's nothing wrong with using a tactic that keeps them on their toes--provided you're doing it in the interest of a student-centered classroom rather than simply to keep kids in line.

The second reason I'm a fan of cold calling relates to assessment. By spreading questions around to include all students, you get a much more reliable gauge of the entire class' understanding of material than when you only call on hand raisers. And though at times students will still shrug their shoulders or mutter "I don't know," this is valuable assessment information when it reflects students being confused as opposed to unengaged.

And finally, reason #3 relates to preparing students for future endeavors. Sooner or later, a professor or boss is going to put students on the spot. It only makes sense, then, that we should put them on the spot now.

Engagement, assessment, and preparation for the future: three reasons cold calling beats hand raising hands-down. Look for a follow-up post soon with a few cold calling dos and don'ts, but first the quest for the best questioning strategy will continue in my next post when cold calling takes on another challenger: choral response.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

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