Cold-calling: For Better or for Worse?

By Sara Chia (21S03G)

The class is silent, and so are you. Your hands are cold, clammy, and you sink further into your jacket, staring furtively at your worksheet, hoping that it’ll somehow make you invisible. You can feel yourself tensing with every moment that goes by, and relief hits you the instant you hear a name that’s not yours being called.

Does that sound familiar? Does that one class that you’ve come to dread come to mind because of this very experience? You’re probably thinking about cold-calling. 

We’ve all had to deal with it from time to time. Used most often in classroom settings, it’s seen as a way to get answers out of unresponsive students, getting valuable insights from those who would otherwisely not respond. Conversely, it may also be viewed as forcing answers out of people who don’t know them. At the very least, the class won’t be dead silent. 

The typical argument for cold-calling goes like this: if the teacher doesn’t call on students and the class refuses to voluntarily participate, then teachers will not be able to continue their lesson unless they hand over the solutions. But teachers are meant to teach, not dish out answers, so students should be given a chance to respond before solutions are given to them. It’s a good way of getting students to pay attention in class and getting the quieter ones to come out of their shell. 

But I beg to differ. 

There are a good mix of classes in JC, some with frequent cold-calling and others where class participation is more voluntary. The latter is inefficient, you may argue, the progress of the lesson depends on whether or not students choose to answer. However, in the words of a classmate of mine: “If we [feel] comfortable enough to respond, we would.”

I admit, the uncomfortably tight schedule in JC strips away the luxury of having discussions and time to do much aside from desperately scribbling answers down. The most efficient way to encourage class participation would be through these quick exchanges. Still, in these two years of desperately cramming for the ‘A’ levels, is a class that’s forced to be responsive that much better than a silent one?

Some students don’t mind being called on even if their hands aren’t raised; they’ll barely feel humiliated even if the answer that they end up blurting out makes no sense at all. But not everyone is able to feel that way, and more often than not, most realise cold-calling ends up generating the opposite effect instead.

Let’s say a teacher calls your name to answer a question; if you get it wrong, it’s humiliating. Even if you’re assured that it’s okay to make mistakes, it does little to change your own feelings about the matter. With the way exams are graded, it’s been hard-wired into students that the most important thing is getting the answer right. That, along with every student’s desire to avoid being judged by fellow peers, has led to an obsession over giving the correct answer. And it’s hard to focus on learning when the entire lesson is spent in self-conscious anxiety. Therefore, instead of encouraging class participation, cold-calling creates a stressful atmosphere which stifles participation instead. One of my classmates shared, “Sometimes I don’t know the answer which makes me [feel] insufficient when I get it wrong. It makes me feel inadequate. So in class I’m worrying constantly when teachers start to call names. Afterwards I don’t think I remember much of the content that was asked, I just feel relieved that it’s over.”

Ruefully, another friend added on, “I think all the stress just leads to rushed or ‘smoked’ answers instead of actually well thought-out ones. And even when [teachers] say no one will judge me if I get it wrong, I [would] feel bad about myself nonetheless.”

Equating silence to inattentiveness is a flawed concept, and forcing students to answer questions as part of class participation isn’t always the case. In 2015, educator and writer Jessica Lahey shared, “There are ways to encourage participation other than asking students to speak up in class, and silence is an incredibly important tool for promoting learning and teaching patience.” Another writer, Dana Weeks, added on that silence could help students to develop focused, reflective thoughts instead of blurting answers. It also helps students to develop a more sustained attention span as they will have to focus on the teacher in order to keep up with the content being taught—a valuable skill to have when they join the workforce.

After all, everyone has their own methods of learning and keeping afloat, which may not necessarily involve speaking up. Not everyone has the confidence or ability to do that—I certainly don’t. Research has shown that introverts differ from extroverts not only on a behavioural level, but on a distinct psychological level, as well. Many introverts are able to formulate insights and think things through more deeply when left alone, away from the pressure of the classroom environment, according to Tara Malone. One of the greatest flaws of using cold-calling as a method is the way it forces quieter students to participate, and makes them feel as though their introversion is a flaw.

Cold-calling has not been proven to be a stellar teaching method either, even if it’s widely used. A study conducted by Northeastern University in 2012 showed that class participation is likely to decrease in the event of cold-calling, and increase where participation is voluntary. Students are much more willing to participate when they feel comfortable doing so, instead of having a response they’re unsure of being forced out of them. “It’s so scary, even if all you had to do was answer,” responds one of my classmates when asked about cold-calling. “It feels like there are going to be consequences if no one answers, and instead of thinking through and answering logically,you’re yelling out answers to save yourself and everyone else. Like a survival game.” 

Of course, one teacher can’t possibly find something that works just as effectively for all twenty-something students at the same time. But in the case of cold-calling, which causes students to lose focus of lesson content and stresses them out needlessly, it’s a method that should be reconsidered.

Ultimately, the decision whether to cold-call rests in the hands of the teachers; but I can only hope that in the years to come, students won’t have to walk into lessons feeling discomfort and anxiety blooming within them. 

Teaching isn’t about generating answers for students—that much is true. But with cold-calling, students spend more time worrying about getting things right instead of learning and reflecting on the lesson’s contents, as they should. The teacher calls a name, and the only thing on your mind is: “What if I’m next?”. And all of a sudden, class becomes less about learning, more about surviving.

That’s not what students have come here for, either.

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