Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Calling All Students (Thinking About Class Participation)

Do you only call on students who raise their hands in class? This is a question I like to ask my colleagues when we talk shop about teaching. Keep in mind that I write from the perspective of someone who teaches classes with a maximum of forty students. My typical Introduction to Sociology class has forty students. But my Research Methods class never has more than twenty. So the ways I try to elicit class participation have a lot to do with my class sizes. 

When I first started teaching, I only called on students who raised their hands. That seemed like the natural way to go. But it wasn't long before I became comfortable calling on students who didn't raise their hands. I just wanted more people to join the conversation. I never want to embarrass a student or make them feel uncomfortable. I just want to try to give students a chance to express their points of view. I take a lot of interest in students who appear to be very shy. It seems like nothing would ever get them to raise their hands. But shy students have something to say too. 

More often than not, I am rewarded for calling on a student who didn't raise their hand. The student might be surprised at being called, but usually the student handles the situation well. The student generally does a good job of responding to my question. In return, the student hears something I say a lot in class: "Thank you." I am sincerely thankful when students contribute to discussions. So many interesting and unexpected things occur when more people join the conversation. 

Sometimes, calling on students who haven't raised their hands is just a practical thing to do. There are days when no hands are raised. There are moments when it feels like I'm pulling teeth. Sometimes all it takes is one student to spark the conversation. And in some cases that only happens when I call on a student who didn't raise their hand.

Perhaps someone is reading this and thinking: "This guy is a real moron. He's actually writing something about calling on students. What a fool. They are students. They should be called on, no matter what." If anyone has that thought, I would remind the person that a teacher is taking a risk by calling on a student who didn't raise their hand. There are times when I have called on a student and their face has turned bright red. There are times when a student quietly says "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" or just gives me a blank look. They might be extremely shy, or sick, or tired, or startled, or confused, or just totally caught off guard. No one wants to be a deer in the headlights. So if I catch someone at the wrong moment, I apologize. The apology is for embarrassing them when that's what I have done. I suppose someone else might be reading this and thinking: "Who is the oversensitive professor who would apologize to students? They're supposed to be engaged. They're supposed to be prepared. Too bad if they're caught off guard." I disagree. Students lead complicated lives. Many are exhausted, many are overwhelmed with too much coursework, many are stressed by financial and personal problems, many have jobs to worry about too. So I'm not going to hassle a student for not having something to say at any given moment. It must also be said that some students don't want to say anything--ever. Some are afraid of what their peers will think, some are nervous about speaking in public, some have a speech impediment (please note that I have had students with speech impediments contribute to class discussions on a regular basis. I'm just saying that some students with speech impediments are reluctant to speak). So there are lots of reasons why people would prefer not to speak. And if a student asks me not to call on them (which I think has only happened once or twice), then I don't.

I sum it up this way in my syllabus in a section about my teaching style: Usually, I wait for students to raise their hands before I call on them, because I don’t want to call on someone who doesn’t have anything to say.  However, as the course progresses, I will call on students who don’t raise their hands, for the purpose of including students (especially shy ones) in the conversation.  When I call on a student, it is never to embarrass them or put them “on the spot.”  

Despite the potentially embarrassing moments that can flow from this approach, I will continue the practice. I'm not saying all teachers should do as I do (and I definitely respect my colleagues who don't call on students unless hands are raised). Overall, it works well for me and I'd like to hear what others have to say about the subject. As I mentioned earlier, I am often rewarded for calling on students who don't expect to speak. Recently, I called on a student in my Introduction to Sociology class who hadn't said anything in the first four weeks of class. It seemed to me she was paying close attention during class. I wanted to hear what she had to say. So I called on her. In the two classes since then, she has raised her hand several times. What if I had not called on her the first time? Would she have ever raised her hand? To me, the benefits to students (and to teachers) of calling on students without their hands raised outweigh the disadvantages. Mistakes will be made, no doubt. But teaching and learning are like all other forms of social interaction: not perfect, and sometimes embarrassing. We do the best we can. For my part, I strive to include as many students as possible in the process of learning. I'm learning, too. When I hear from more students, I learn more. 


  1. I may have to borrow your syllabus language (If that is ok). Currently, I don't call on students unless their hand is raised. I was a student that liked to listen, organize my thoughts, and then contribute if I thought I had something to add to the discussion. I don't think I ever had a college professor ever call on me unless my hand was raised. As a teacher at a community college, limiting myself to a few raised hands is a real problem because few students raise their hands. A lot of my students are just not used to being allowed to contribute to a real class discussion.

  2. Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks for writing. You are welcome to use the language from my syllabus. Go for it. I do believe it's worth a try to call on some students. It's worth the risk of occasional embarrassment to the student or oneself. When that happens, I do my best to "clean up" the interaction by sincerely apologizing. No one wants to be embarrassed and I definitely don't want to embarrass anyone. I do want to strongly encourage more student participation, and this is a way to do it, I believe. Thanks for commenting.

  3. glad to have read this entry. i usually call students who do not raise their hands to force them to think. passive students should not be allowed to stay passive. if they do not have anything to contribute the first time they are called, i tell them that i will call them again, so they will prepare. To encourage everyone to participate, i never say their answers are wrong even if they are, i find ways to make their answers matter.
    MV Aguilar, De La Salle University-Dasmarinas Cavite City Philippines

    1. MV, thanks for taking the time to write. I also make sure I let students know their answers matter. Definitely important.