Friday, June 13, 2008

Cold callin' and dealin' cards

I don't know how most of you feel about 'cold calling' on students (calling on students who don't raise their hands). On the one hand, I want to respect students' desire to learn in their own ways and to engage the material in a fashion that's comfortable to them. I also don't want to students to feel intimidated or put on the spot, or worse yet, avoid coming to class for fear of having to speak. But on the other hand, cold calling creates the expectation that students need to be prepared for class, and in my experience, many reticent students actually have a great deal to contribute and can help their peers learn. Furthermore, students who don't speak in class aren't likely to get the help they need (they won't ask questions seeking clarification, for instance). And if you accept that the essence of philosophy is dialogue and shared inquiry, then isn't it reasonable to expect students to speak in class at least occasionally?

I've generally not cold called in the past, in large part because I didn't see a way to do it without seeming aggressive or making students feel cornered. The costs, I surmised, outweighed the benefits.

But here's a neat idea I came across that might diminish the anxiety associated with cold calling. Bring a pack of ordinary playing cards to class and deal each student one card. At appropriate moments, think of a card at random and ask for input from whoever holds the three of spades, the jack of diamonds, whatever you think of.

I like this because it makes it so that I'm not picking on a student (especially that I'm not picking on a student because the student tends not to speak in class). Since who gets selected is random, I might select a student who almost never speaks, but I might selective Mr. or Ms. Talkative. It also seems kind of fun and whimsical, so that the pressure is deflated a little bit. You could also make it a little 'safer' for those who are less likely to talk by taking their card once they've talked, so that they need not speak more than once.

I'd be interested to know people's reaction to this idea. My hope is that this would create an atmosphere where everyone feels more comfortable speaking and the expectation that speaking in class in normal, regardless of who you are.


  1. I think this is a very good idea, and will give it a try in my classes this fall. I've rarely cold called a student in class, for the reasons you mention. But I agree that it is good for students to feel as if they might have to contribute to the discussion or answer a question over the readings for the day. And given that in a math or foreign language class students are called on as a matter of course, there's nothing wrong with doing so in our classes as well. Thanks for sharing this idea!

  2. I LOVE this idea, I think the benefits of cold calling generally outweigh the harms, but this variation is an improvement that eliminates suspicion of "targeting" etc. Thanks! I think I will use this!

  3. I don't know about the deck of cards idea, but I also don't like "cold-calling." However, what I often do is if someone makes a funny face, or gives a concerned look, or laughs, I'll make eye contact with that person and ask, "Why do you think that's funny?" or, "What are you concerned about here?" Usually, if one person thinks some idea seems funny or kooky, so do others, and that eases the tension. If the person doesn't want to talk, or doesn't have much to say, I'll pass the question on to someone else, and thus ease any sense of undue pressure. Ditto for looks of concern. I suppose there are other "looks" in the taxonomy, such as looks of confusion, but if I can tell that it's that kind of look, then I might instead just back up, and go over the point again. I figure these various looks are a good sign of "active listening," and most students don't seem to mind my asking. And hopefully, it shows that I'm paying attention to them, too.

  4. Two brief thoughts: (1) Expect some cards to go missing. (2) You'll need a strategy for when the student with the three of hearts doesn't want to acknowledge that she's holding the three of hearts.

  5. I don't care for cold calling, either. This semester I've incorporated some great strategies I picked up at a Cooperative Learning workshop, which get students talking to one another--not in front of the whole class.

    For example, sometimes I'll start a session by giving an overview of the topic of the day, then I'll break them up into groups of 2 or 3 students at the most, and have half of them discuss and summarize a main argument, and the other half describe and summarize a counterargument.

    The students teach each other the material in their own words, while I go around and make sure they're on point.

    Afterwards, I call on "teams" instead of individual students; the student in the team who is most comfortable speaking up will "teach" their section to the class, with me guiding, clarifying, and challenging when necessary.

    This accomplishes a lot of things, at once: it gets each and every one of the students talking about the subject, explaining it in their own words, and engaging to the point where they become really curious about hearing the other side (the argument/counterargument).

    This strategy is not for those instructors who prefer to be the "sage on the stage". My quieter students are grateful that I'm not putting them on the spot, yet they're still getting the chance to show me, and a classmate or two, that they know their stuff.

  6. I've never been a fan, but I can appreciate Michael's motivation and intentions here. My experiences with this are mixed.

    In my own experience, I've had great results with cold calling in upper divisional classes. On the other hand, I've had awful results in lower divisional (core curriculum) courses.

    In upper division classes, I find that students appreciate it, because they truly do want to get better at philosophy, so they appreciate my putting them on the spot and forcing them to face up to their own fears of public speaking or arguing. I've had students say that this cold-Socratic method forced them to learn in an intense way they had not experienced before.

    In lower division classes, or core required courses, it is generally a disaster for me. Mostly this is for the expected reasons: not everyone there really wants to get better at the subject. Some simply want to "do their time" and get paroled at the end of the semester. So they don't appreciate being called out in public and, in some cases, embarrassed.

    Still, I recognize that in lower level classes, once some students recognize that "this is not a cold-calling class" they will tune out more than they normally would. Again, I am unsure how to proceed: is cold calling in such a case another example of unwanted paternalism? I'm not sure.

  7. Kayla's post gave me a thought -- would it make sense, in the lower divisional courses, to create teams of two or three that run for the whole semester, and instead of cold calling individuals, you cold call the group?

  8. Chris,

    It's funny you say that, I actually do put them in semester-long groups, naming each group by a different philosopher. This makes them naturally curious about their namesake philosopher.

    These semester-long "Philosopher" teams are comprised of 6-7 students; for group work such as I described earlier, I'll further break the larger "Philosopher" groups up, as 2-3 students is ideal for in-class collaborative activities. Any more than three, and the quieter students hide.

    Small group activities like the ones I've described are also excellent for dealing with "problem" students, such as the overly aggressive know-it-all, the slacker, etc. You assign the "problem student" a role that counteracts their bad behavior; for instance, the know-it-all is assigned the role of "encourager" or "question-asker," the slacker is assigned the role of group facilitator, responsible for starting and leading the group discussion.

    And yes, these strategies are primarily for undergraduates; though I think "pairing up" would work well regardless of the level.

    :) Karla

  9. I, too, use the "group cold-calling" idea in my first-year course that is focused on a seminar-type discussion. I hand out different coloured index cards, and at various points I'll ask someone with a yellow card, or a blue card, or whatever, to give their thoughts. That means there is more than one person who could answer, and usually someone will speak up. One thing I had to do, though: they tended to hide their cards, so I had to ask them to leave them out in front of them so I could see who had which colours of cards. I didn't make up this idea myself, but like many good pedagogical tools, got it from a colleague. It works pretty well, though sometimes I'll still have that stunned silence, even though there are 4-5 people who could answer.


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