Taking the Terror out of Random Call

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Dear Office Hours with EdComm,

I try to use evidence-based teaching strategies as much as possible in my classroom but one that I have not yet tried is random call. I remember when I was a student and being called on at random was terrifying for me! I also know that some of my students are really anxious about speaking in front of the class so I fear that I might alienate these students and some might even stop coming to class altogether. I want to make my classroom an equitable environment and I know that random call is supposed to help that but do I really have to do it? Is there another strategy I can use?

Reservations about Random Call

Dear Reservations about Random Call,

Random call, or “cold calling,” is certainly a method that evokes strong feelings, so this is a great question to consider. Some instructors may think of random call as an incentive to pay attention to what the instructor is saying or to participate in group activities. Although this certainly may be one benefit, random call is also an important equity strategy. We all have experienced classrooms in which a single individual or small group of students are the only ones who raise their hands to answer a question. Using random call ensures that every student has the chance to participate and practice answering or asking questions. Let’s take a look at the evidence supporting random call as an effective strategy to use in the classroom.

A recent study in CBE—Life Sciences Education by Knight, et al. showed that the use of random call after small group discussions improved the quality of those small group discussions.1 Analysis of small group conversations showed that the small group discussions in random call class sessions included more reasoning and questions than the conversations in volunteer class sessions. In another study, Eddy et al. found that there were differences in both the achievement and participation of male and female students but that random call was a useful strategy in mitigating that participation gap.2 Dallimore et al. demonstrated that when random call is used more frequently, there is actually an increase in students’ voluntary participation in classroom discussions.3 This may occur because students are increasingly comfortable with talking in front of the class after having been required to do so or because they rely less on individuals who are always willing to answer questions in front of the class.

The evidence presented above makes a compelling argument for random call, but your question indicates that it’s a bit more complicated, and it is. What about the fear potentially induced in students by random call? Many studies of random call have noted student fear and anxiety in response to random call, and importantly, this may be a distraction from the learning process. I agree that acknowledging student fear and anxiety is important. However, avoiding the use of random call is not the only way to mitigate this fear.
Below are some strategy suggestions from the literature and personal experience for implementing random call in a way that might help to mitigate student fear and anxiety:

  • Discuss the use of random call early in the semester and give students who are very anxious the opportunity to opt out by emailing the professor. The last thing we want is our students focusing on the fear of random call rather than the course content! In my experience, very few will take this option, but it can build trust and help students with specific public speaking anxieties to feel comfortable in the classroom.
  • Build community in class so that getting the wrong answer or making mistakes is accepted and even welcomed. The wrong answer is really just a learning opportunity and any student who bravely gives the wrong answer is really just saying what many other students are likely thinking. Further, getting the wrong answer and figuring out how to get the right answer in this process is profoundly brain-changing.4 If being wrong is normalized in the learning environment, individual students who are called on and get the wrong answer will likely be less embarrassed and distracted by it. You might even thank those students for bringing up an important opportunity for clarification.
  • “Warm call,” instead of cold call, provides opportunities for students to try their answers out in a small group or pair discussion before being called on randomly. Letting students know when the question is initially asked (before discussing in groups) that they will be called on lowers the participation barrier even further. This approach also gives students incentive to make the most out of their small group discussions.1,2
  • Allow students to “phone a friend” or “pass” their turn to another random name. This is a fun option that may build community in the classroom by allowing students to ask a colleague for help. We all ask colleagues for help from time to time, so why not allow students to try it in the classroom?
  • Ask questions to which there are multiple correct answers. Framing questions around what students’ ideas are rather than using random call on questions where there is only one correct answer may allow for multiple ideas to be shared. For example, instead of “What is the molecule produced during transcription?” you might ask, “What can you tell me about the process of transcription?” and then allow several students to share ideas that might build a better understanding of this process.

To conclude, random call may be a useful strategy for creating an equitable and inclusive classroom, and there are certainly many approaches to making this a more realistic option for you and your students. I hope one or more of these suggestions will be helpful if you do try random call, but only you can decide if it is right for your classroom.


1Knight JK, Wise SB, Sieke S (2016). Group random call can positively affect student in-class clicker discussions. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, ar56.
2 Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Wenderoth MP (2014). Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms. CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, 478–492.
3Dallimore EJ, Hertenstein JH, Platt MB (2013). Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation. Journal of Management Education 37, 305–341.
4Moser JS et al. (2011). Mind your errors: evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive posterror adjustments. Psychological Science 0956797611419520.

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