Why we need to warm up ‘cold call’

This is a guest blog written by Emily Pringle.

Emily has been a History teacher for 12 years working in Lincolnshire. She has three children and works 0.8, and is a Regional Representative for the Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project. She is passionate about effective CPD for teachers: helping to support CPD within her school for the last 4 years has led to a new role of Research and Development Lead.

You can find Emily on Twitter: @EHP89 

This blog was edited by Gemma Molyneux. Find out more about Gemma on this page.

Recently, it has dawned on me that cold calling, which involves requesting student responses from any member of the class, regardless of whether they have their hands raised, is one of the most widely debated techniques. This holds true not only within my school but also based on the discussions I observe on Twitter and various other platforms. Research by Morek et al. (2022) has shown that cold call can be useful but that it also fails in classrooms, and this is borne out by debate from those who see it as instilling fear and those who view it as an essential tool for gathering data during lessons. For cold call to be genuine and to make a difference, it needs warmth. The very phrase cold call is perhaps misleading as, without this warming up, cold call can fail on every level. Has the student listened? Are they confident and comfortable speaking? Are you getting the best of them? Is it making the best use of time in the classroom? For me, the hallmarks of a ‘cold’ cold call are:

  • No warning that cold call be used (unless you have built this with the class).
  • No thought as to who is being asked and why.
  • Asking to catch out students who are not listening.
  • Giving no rehearsal time.
  • Still focusing on a small section of the group. 

 These are all mistakes I have seen in the classroom and by those who see it as simple ‘no hand up’. Having run sessions on cold call and other questioning techniques, there are always those teachers whose stock response is ‘it’s just no hands up’, and in its very coldest format, I would agree, but what I would argue is that this is not actually cold call, but indeed a very poor version of it. What we actually need is a warm ‘cold call’. The difference here is in the delivery of that cold call, the thinking behind it and the broader classroom culture, all of which requires effort and thought. Cold call should be one aspect of classroom and questioning culture, not a bolt-on. Warming up cold call increases its chance of success. Cold call was never meant to be the ‘gotcha’ for a student whose mind had wandered. It’s supposed to increase the ratio of students who are actively listening and engaged. We are all familiar with Willingham’s ‘memory; it’s the residue of thought’, and now it seems much of my teaching life is concerned with ‘Are they thinking?’ and ‘Are they thinking about what I want them to think about?’ and therefore cold call can be inherently useful especially when combined with other techniques and asking multiple students as part of our routine checks for understanding.  For students to genuinely think hard, the environment needs to be safe, this is where the ‘warming up’ comes in. Cold call needs to be done with warmth and thought so that we are using it successfully. This requires clear purpose and signposting. So how do we do this and warm up our cold call

1. With purpose

We need to be explaining the why and the how so students know to expect it. The use of this in a classroom should not be a shock but part of a routine that has been taught and explained well. When initially introducing the technique, there should be an explanation of what it is, and then I believe there are two routes. 

  • The first is the idea that everyone’s voice is valid, and I want to hear as many as possible. 
  • Secondly, we go back to that idea of thinking hard – ‘I want you all to be really thinking about this topic/question/point as if we don’t think about things, they don’t move into our long-term memory, and we are unlikely to remember them, therefore, this is all about increasing your chances of success’. 

Both approaches can be utilised, and as the routine becomes more embedded, I might ask students to explain why we use it or add that reminder at the beginning of a term. 

2. With rehearsal

There are various ways to make cold call less threatening and to improve its chances of success in terms of getting students to think hard and engage in the lesson. Some of my favourites are around the use of turn and talk or in combination with think, pair, share. These give students a chance to rehearse their answer and therefore have something ready and prepared. Other ideas can be using thinking or writing time. If I am seeing lots of blank or confused faces, I will often go to ‘you have ___ seconds/minutes to think/write something down before I cold call’. This is key, I always pre-warn that this first stage, the rehearsal, will lead to cold call. All these rehearsal methods allow students to warm up their own answers before potentially being asked to share, decreasing anxiety around the technique. 

3. With enthusiasm

Another way to warm up cold call is to be genuinely positive when asking the questions and following up the answer, encouraging students to want to answer again and giving them a positive experience. In the first instance, praise the effort as students get used to the technique. Then push for detail, bouncing the idea and asking more than one student. This goes back to the ‘voices heard’ idea, using cold call to sample as many answers as you can and encouraging students to participate by creating psychological safety.

4. With warmth

However tempting, do not use this as a ‘gotcha’. This will undermine the technique overall, adding an element of threat to the culture you have started to build. If you accidentally catch someone out, give them a chance ‘I’m going to ask a couple of others, then I will come back to you’. Stick to the true spirit of cold call.  Therefore, through warming up our cold call, students can feel more at ease, and more confident and therefore are more likely to be thinking about what we want them to be. This is ultimately our goal, not a classroom of anxious teens who don’t know where and when they will be asked but a classroom of engaged students who are being supported to achieve their very best. 


Gordon, A.W. Posted. “The ‘Meet and Greet’: Passive and Active.” Mr. Gordon Teaches, 12 Apr. 2023, mrgordonteacher.wordpress.com/2023/04/12/the-meet-and-greet-passive-and-active/.

Engaging ‘Silent’ Students in Classroom Discussions: A Micro-Analytic …, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09500782.2022.2155474. Accessed 5 June 2023. 

Lemov, Doug, and Norman Atkins. Teach like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass, 2015. 

Terada, Youki. “Does Cold Calling Work? Here’s What the Research Says.” Edutopia, 26 Apr. 2023, www.edutopia.org/article/does-cold-calling-work-heres-what-the-research-says/

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