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The Art of Cold Calling

By Mayank S on February 2, 2024

What is Cold Calling?

“So, does anyone think they can help answer this question?”

Imagine you’re in the middle of a session, and you ask your students that question. You wait a few seconds to account for the delay in the Internet and the time it takes for students to perk up and hit unmute. That time passes by, and you ask everyone again. You quickly realize that nobody is going to volunteer themselves, and that in reality, the Zoom call has been quiet even longer than you think: the students stopped participating as soon as the session started.

Not only is this an awkward situation for you as the tutor, but this is also negatively impacting the learning environment of your students. This trend of low participation rates throughout your sessions might indicate that nobody is interested in the lessons being taught and if the students aren’t interested, then they aren’t learning anything.

In my experience as a tutor on Schoolhouse, one of the best ways to improve students’ participation and establish a trend of contributing to the sessions is by using a classroom technique called “cold calling.”

Cold calling is when the tutor observes that nobody is volunteering to answer a question, so they randomly call on a student to help work through the problem. While some tutors may be uncomfortable using this technique, for some, it works. Establishing a trend of cold calling in your sessions sends signals to students that the tutor expects interaction, and could help students pay attention, since they could be the one called on. This technique allows tutors to better interact with students who might be reluctant to volunteer on their own because of their gaps in understanding. By identifying and reaching out to these students, you can make sure everyone is on the same page and getting as much out of each session as they can.

What if my students don’t answer a cold call?

The most common reasons tutors don’t want to start cold calling in their sessions is (1) Because they don’t want to suddenly put students on the spot and (2) They’re worried the students won’t respond. I understand these concerns, but in my experience, in all of my sessions, I’ve only ever had one student ask not to respond to the question, and no students were harmed by the stress of being put on the spot. I’ve found that students want to interact, and cold calling can be a way to give them a chance to. In my tutoring sessions, many of my students have readily helped answer the question, and at the same time, I also end up calling on students who say they aren’t quite sure how to proceed with a problem, which is a good thing. As tutors, we want to gauge how much our students are understanding, and oftentimes, students are hesitant to ask questions to fill any gaps in their knowledge. In fact, putting a student on the spot allows you, as the tutor, to specifically and personally address their knowledge gaps, making them a better student.

Now, if a student doesn’t respond if you’ve called their name, all you have to do is repeat yourself and/or hit the ask to unmute button on their icon in Zoom. By that point nearly all students will answer, and if they don’t, just say, “Alright, how about Bob? Do you think you can help Jim and me out with this question?” Politely moving on to the next person is a great strategy. It is also a way you can address a learner’s concerns, especially if they get badly stuck on a problem. Asking a second student is an opportunity to increase engagement in your sessions while addressing the concerns of the first student.

The best way to ensure a good response to cold calls is to lay down your expectations for your series in your first session. Let all your learners know they might get called on, and advise them to DM you at the beginning of a session if they are unable to unmute. It’s also wise to ask your learners to let you know in the chat when they have to get up (and, for example, go to the bathroom), so you don’t accidentally call on them. When students know that responding to a cold call is a class expectation, you’ll be sure to get quick and meaningful responses to your cold calls.

Cautions on Cold Calling

Always remember: The purpose of cold calling is to foster an environment where students want to volunteer without being called on.

Don’t use cold calling for every question, and don’t randomly pick someone before asking the group if anyone is willing to volunteer on their own. Sometimes, I’ll say it in an interesting way to make students perk up and volunteer, for example, “So, does anyone want to sacrifice themselves as tribute and answer this question for the good of our people?”

Cold calling is only for sessions when none of your learners are excited to respond (which is also a signal to you that you might need to make your lessons more engaging), or for sessions where you notice that 1 or 2 learners are very excited to respond while the rest of the group is mostly quiet. You can use cold calling to engage the learners who participate the least.

Are there Ways Other than Cold Calling to get Students Engaged?

Absolutely! A lot of tutors suggest using games like Quizizz or Kahoot! to supplement your lessons. I’ve found that tailoring lessons to include things that students like such as weird stories, interesting celebrities, etc. works well too. A really simple way to get everyone involved is with voting. When working through multiple choice questions, tell students to unmute and vote for an answer choice. It’s fine if they choose to use the chat in Zoom, but make sure it’s in the public chat and not DMs (the point is to create a bandwagon effect so students become more willing respond when they see their classmates responding). One more tip I would suggest is to constantly encourage students to keep their cameras on. If the camera is on, students typically participate more.

To tie all of these tips together, I also want to highlight one more important piece of advice: make sure to spark engagement and interest in the FIRST session. Lay down the expectations for cold calling, unmuting, and keeping the cameras on even before you get to the actual material you will be covering in your series. Encourage students to unmute, and praise those who volunteer, even if their answer is wrong (trying is more consequential than failing).

With all these tips in mind, I hope you can create a learning environment that’s more fun and engaging than ever before. Good luck!

Thank you Sharon V for editing this article! peer tutoring, for free.


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