Calling on students at random: What are the keys to success?


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Lofty principles of equal opportunity guide our country and our schools, but the truth is that not everyone is treated fairly, and not everyone’s voice has an equal chance of being heard. As instructors, we must confront the painful idea that our own teaching practices can unintentionally reinforce inequality. I am therefore attracted to people who approach this problem thoughtfully and offer constructive suggestions for improvement.

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about an excellent and still-timely article that lists an impressive variety of ways to promote engagement and equity in the classroom (Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity, by Kimberly D. Tanner).

One of my favorite strategies from that article was to call on students randomly instead of waiting for volunteers to answer questions directed to the class. Since I read that simple tip for boosting participation and encouraging diverse voices, I have used it in both my medium-to-large nonmajors biology class and in my small science writing class aimed at graduate students. In short, I like it.

Recently, I was interested to read a new article from CBE–Life Sciences Education devoted entirely to random calling. The authors, Alex H. Waugh and Tessa C. Andrews, recognize that random calling has benefits and costs. Even among instructors for whom the benefits outweigh the costs, they don’t necessarily agree on how best to implement random calling. So Waugh and Andrews interviewed 12 instructors who use this technique in an effort to find the “critical components” that are essential to success. If you want all the gory details, I urge you to read the full article. But for those of you who just want the take-home message, here you go.

According to Waugh and Andrews, the critical components of random calling are:

  • Explaining to students why you are using this technique in your class, emphasizing the benefits and detailing how you are minimizing the potential costs;
  • Allowing students to discuss a question among themselves before randomly calling for an answer;
  • Calling on a group, as opposed to an individual student;
  • Allowing a student to report the group’s collective ideas rather than their personal thoughts;
  • Being “respectful and polite” (I might add here, editorially, an enthusiastic thumbs-up for this piece of advice).

The 12 instructors were divided on the finer details of implementation, including whether each group should assign a reporter role ahead of time vs. allowing an outspoken group member to volunteer information on behalf of the group. Another area of controversy was whether random selection should be with or without replacement – that is, once a student or group has been called on, is that student exempt for the day/week/rest of the semester, or might that same name be called again? In addition, a few instructors allow students to “pass” on a question; a few others allow students to put themselves on a “do-not-call” list. The article explores all of these issues in detail.

The article does not touch on random calling in online classes, but I am writing this blog post in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I have been thinking about which of my favorite teaching techniques lend themselves to teaching online. In a synchronous online class, e.g. on Zoom, I don’t see any reason why an instructor couldn’t call on an individual student at random. If the Zoom class uses breakout rooms, the instructor could also call out groups randomly when the class as a whole reconvenes. I would love to hear (in the comments section) from instructors who have relevant experiences to share.

If you have not yet tried random calling, I encourage you to do so. If you have tried it but want to know more, take a look at the Waugh and Andrews article. Either way, keep an open mind about your longstanding practices as you think about how you can be part of the solution.


This entry was posted in Active learning, Engaging students, Equity and inclusion, Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Calling on students at random: What are the keys to success?

  1. Pingback: Seven Strategies for Sustaining Student Engagement Online | Teaching nonmajors biology

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