An Alternative to Cold Calling

In Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time if you care about the amount and quality of discussion in your classroom), he lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.”  It’s clear that, once one establishes cold calling as part of the norm of your classroom, using that technique can increase the quality of discussion in your class.

However, most of us are loathe to use cold calling, partly because we don’t like the perception it creates in students that we are out to get them, partly because we don’t believe it will actually lead to a substantive answer, and partly because we believe it will negatively affect our course evaluations (if we’re honest).  For those of us who are introverts who went through our college courses often not talking, we also don’t want to inflict such expectations on students who are much like we were.

There is a middle path here, though, that I’ve found works quite well:  online forum posts to help guide discussion.  In my upper-division courses, students are required to post a response to their reading by the morning of the class where we’ll be discussing that reading.  Such an approach has a few advantages, all of which help with class discussion.First, I use it to call on students to ensure the participation of all students.  Because they’ve already been able to write something out, I am not cold calling on them, despite the fact that they don’t know who I will call on, when, and on what day.  I also assure them that I will only call on them when I believe they have written something worthwhile.  Thus, I can call on students and ask them to share from the earlier post.  They know that I already value their contribution, which lowers their anxiety, and I know what comment they’ll contribute, which helps me know where the discussion will go.

Since I can read all the comments before class meetings, I can be certain that all students talk over the course of a week or two weeks or however long I want to set.  They are unable to sit in class with the “civil attention” Howard talks about, as they never know when I will call on them, and I can make sure they all contribute to the class.

Second, I can see where areas of understanding or confusion exist before I walk into class.  Since I have already read everyone’s initial responses to the reading, I can find places I need to focus on or I can ignore.  There have been numerous times where I had planned to discuss an idea only to see half the class comment on it quite intelligently in their posts.  I simply walked into class, told them they had done so, then moved on to another topic, giving the class more time to discuss other ideas.

Similarly, I can see where students are struggling with understanding certain ideas or readings.  Given that I can skip some areas they already understand, I now have more time to spend on the parts they have less comprehension of.  I can adjust the discussion to focus on those areas, as I have had time to think through questions I want to ask or activities I can use to help them come to some understanding of whatever material they are struggling with.

Next, it ensures students are doing the reading.  We’re always looking for ways to be certain students do whatever required reading we’re giving them.  Having them write a response ahead of time ensures that they do so.  This assignment is easily tweaked, in fact, to have students add a quote from the reading or apply an idea to a particular situation, which would help eliminate skimming.

I used to give quizzes in these classes, which take up class time, but the forum posts eliminates the need for those.  When I have asked students who have taken different classes with me which approach they prefer, they have all told me the posts.  They say that the posts make them think more about the material and get rid of the pressure of quizzes, as they say they sometimes read, but still miss questions.

Last, students are more likely to talk on their own after I’ve called on them.  In every class where I’ve taken this approach, class discussion has been more robust than in similar classes where I do quizzes.  Just two days ago, I called on a student for the first time this semester.  She hadn’t spoken so far this semester, and I wanted to make sure she did.  Her original comment wasn’t great, but it helped move the discussion in a direction I found interesting.  Later in the class, she added a comment on her own, a phenomenon I see again and again.  If I can get students involved in the discussion in a safe manner, they begin to believe they have something worthwhile to contribute.

For those of us who are hesitant to use cold calling as a technique, online forums are a solid middle path.  Using them encourages students to complete assigned reading and leads to much richer discussion.

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