The Cold Call

Of all of the educational experiences in my life, the one class whose memory still creates some anxiety for me is a History of Physics course I took in my sophomore year in college. The course was built around reading seminal works in physics and discussing them as a class. We read Millikan’s paper on the oil drop experiment which established the charge of the electron. We read Einstein’s paper explaining the photoelectric effect which detailed a connection between the energy of light and electron emission. We read parts of Newton’s Principia which outlined the laws of motion and formed the basis for all of calculus. The semester was a wild ride through primary physics works.

I’m sure that in itself sounds stressful to a lot of readers, but the content wasn’t the anxiety-inducing part for me. I thought it was cool to dig into old research articles and see how they set the foundation to our understandings hundreds of years later. For me, the stressful part was how the class discussions were led by the instructor, Dr. Wofford (not his real name).

Dr. Wofford was a physicist. If you were to close your eyes and imagine what a physicist working in the late 80s would look like, I’m sure your vision would be pretty close. Each day, Dr. Wofford would arrive precisely at the start of class, remove a chewed cigar from his mouth, and place it in the pocket of his brown tweed jacket. He sat down at the desk and got to work. No pleasantries. No greetings. Just physics.

While Dr. Wofford was intimidating in his demeanor, the structure of his class was also stressful. For each research paper that would we read, Dr. Wofford would hand out a series of questions that each of us needed to be prepared to answer during class. Some of the questions could easily be obtained from reading the article. Others were really complex and required a great deal of application and analysis to answer. During class, Dr. Wofford would sit behind his desk and cold call students to answer the assigned questions. He referred to everyone as Mr. or Ms. so each class went something like:

“Mr. Lewis, what is your answer to question number five?”

And the student would try his best to answer the question. If the answer was satisfactory, Dr. Wofford would move further down his class list and address another student.

“Ms. Smith, what is your answer to question number six?”

And the class would continue until all of Dr. Wofford’s questions were satisfactorily answered.

The real challenge came when his questions that weren’t satisfactorily answered. Dr. Wofford would berate and embarrass any student who didn’t answer his questions correctly. Even today, I clearly remember the first time this happened. I stared down at my desk as Dr. Wofford called a classmate “ill-prepared” for the demanding work in the field and advised him to choose another course of study. Thinking back, it could easily be labeled as pedagogical malpractice.

But a strange thing happened as the semester continued. Our class would gather early to make sure we all had answers to the assigned questions. We knew that Dr. Wofford would sometimes ask impromptu follow-up questions so we tried our best to make sure each of us clearly understood the articles. Because none of us wanted to feel the burning pain of Dr. Wofford’s public humiliation, we worked together to help each other learn. We also tried to hijack his discussion methods. While Dr. Wofford typically worked alphabetically down his class roster after starting randomly on the list, we began raising our hands to answer questions. At first, he seemed surprised to see our hands raised before ignoring them and returning to his roster. With time, however, he began calling on us. While our volunteering to answer questions didn’t completely diminish the berating or the humiliation, it gave us a little more control over a really stressful learning environment.

You may be wondering what prompted this walk down memory lane. A colleague and I are facilitating a reading group focused on the book The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). Chapter 1 discusses the benefits of active learning and includes some research on the impact of “cold calling.” As a teacher, I rarely call on students who don’t volunteer. Mostly, I want to avoid creating an environment like the one in Dr. Wofford’s class. But the research by Dallimore and her colleagues has me re-evaluating that decision. In the paper, the authors examined sixteen sections of an accounting class and studied the impact on cold calling on students who hadn’t volunteered. Discussing their findings, the authors write:

The results demonstrate that significantly more students answer questions voluntarily in classes with high cold-calling, and that the number of students voluntarily answering questions in high cold-calling classes increases over time. Furthermore, students in classes with high cold-calling answer more voluntary questions than those in classes with low cold-calling; this also increases over time. Finally, in classes with high cold-calling, students’ comfort participating in class discussions increases while in classes with low cold-calling, students’ comfort participating does not change.” (Dallimore et al, 2013, p. 305).

While I’m not equating this thoughtful research with my experiences in Dr. Wofford’s class, it is causing me to re-examine my use of cold calling. Thankfully, the authors provide some great suggestions for building a warm and supportive classroom environment which should help me avoid creating painful memories that my students would blog about thirty years from now. One can hope.


Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B. (2013). Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation. Journal of Management Education, 37(3), 305-341.

Gooblar, D. (2019). The missing course: Everything they never taught you about college teaching. Harvard University Press.

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