Updating the Great Cold-Call Debate: Does Gender Matter?

Edu-Twitter predictably cycles through a number of debates; in recent weeks, the Great Cold-Call Debate has reheated. (You see what I did there.)

Team A argues that cold calling — that is, calling on students who haven’t raised their hands — is a vital strategy to increase student participation and learning. (Additional benefit: it allows teachers to check for understanding with strategic rapidity and flexibility.)

Team B argues that cold calling raises students’ stress levels, and thereby hampers their learning. (Additional detriment: it especially raises stress for students who face a variety of classroom difficulties–from trauma to special educational needs.)

A young student sits at a desk with her hands covering her eyes; a sympathetic teacher stands next to her with his hand on her shoulder

This “debate” mostly involves making strong claims — “it’s vital!”; “no, it’s dreadful!” — but rarely draws on research to explore its key contentions.

In fact, the debate doesn’t often turn to research because we don’t have much research. But given the energy of recent arguments, I thought I’d check to see if any recent studies can help us out…

Picking Up Where They Left Off

A few years ago, I wrote about a 2013 study done by Dr. Elise Dallimore and Co. This research team — working with college sophomores — found that cold calling increased voluntary class participation and decreased class discomfort.

That is: compared to students in low cold-calling classes, those in high cold-calling classes spoke up more on their own, and expressed greater levels of comfort in class.

That sounds like a win-win.

Of course, all studies include limitations — no one study can explore everything. Team Dallimore spotted an obvious concern with their first study: it didn’t consider the effect of gender on class participation.

We have LOTS of research showing that women feel less comfortable participating in class discussions, and — unsurprisingly — speak up less often than men.

So, picking up where they left off, Dallimore and Co. wanted to see if cold calling reduced or increased this gender split.

In other words: if cold calling benefits students overall (the 2013 study), does it have a different effect on men and women?

Important note:

Dallimore’s first study more-or-less supported Team A as described above: “cold calling encourages class participation.”

Her second study starts to address the the concerns of Team B. We might reasonably worry that women — who (on average) go into many classes feeling stressed about participation — will feel EXTRA stress if that participation becomes mandatory.

This second study explores that plausible concern.

Take II

Like her first study, Dallimore’s second study looks at class participation in several college Accounting classes.

They divided those classes into two groups: “low” cold-calling (less than 25% of the questions were framed as cold call), and “high” cold-calling (more than 33% — and as high as 84%!!).

According to survey data, male and female students went into these classes with roughly the same perceptions of class participation.

So Dallimore’s questions were:

First: Did students’ behavior change based on high- vs. low-cold-calling? And,

Second: Did gender matter for any changes?

In answer to the first question: over time, students volunteered more in the high-cold-calling classes than the low-cold-calling classes.

Whether you’re counting the percentage of students who participated or the number of questions that students asked, those numbers went up.

So, cold calling INCREASED voluntary participation.

Better and Better

Of course, we’re happy to see that cold calling increased participation. However, that finding simply replicates the 2013 study. What about the second question: did gender matter?

Well, both men and women voluntarily participated more in high-cold-calling classes. And, women’s participation increased more than men’s participation.

Specifically: 57% of men voluntarily participated in the low-cold-calling classes, whereas 73% did in the high-cold-calling classes. That’s a difference of  16%.

For women: 52% voluntarily participated in the low-cold-calling classes, whereas 82% did in the high-cold-calling classes. That’s a difference of 30%.

We get the same result if we look at the number of questions asked. Men asked more questions in high-cold-calling classes than in low-cold-calling classes; the average number went from 1.78 to 2.13.

Women asked LOTS more question: the average went from 1.33 to 2.6.

In brief: high-cold-calling classes increased participation for everyone — especially women.

Not So Fast

So far, Dallimore’s 2019 study seems like a slam dunk for Team A. It says, basically: “cold calling does help and doesn’t hurt.”

At the same time, I don’t think we can now rush to conclude “all teachers must cold call all the time.”

I have three reasons to hesitate:

First: both Dallimore’s studies were done with college students. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think that college students make great proxies for K-12 students. On average:

College students know more than K-12 students.

They have higher level of academic and personal maturity.

They probably have higher levels of academic motivation — they’re in college!

So, these findings might apply to K-12 students…but we don’t have research (that I know of) to demonstrate that conclusion.

Second: as I wrote in a blog post last fall, bad cold calling does exist. As the research study described there explains, we need to refine our question.

Instead of asking: “is cold-calling a good idea?”

We should ask: “how can we hone our cold-calling technique to get its benefits without its potential harms?”

Let’s get some really good answers to that second question before we insist on spreading the practice.

Third: At least so far, research suggests that Team B’s concern — “the stress that results from cold calling hampers learning” — doesn’t hold true for most students.

At the same time, our goal is not that most students learn, but that all of them do.

We should accept the almost certainly true statement that cold calling will stress out a few students to the detriment of their learning. Part of “honing out technique” — described in my second point above — will be identifying and working with those students.

To Sum Up

Despite all the heated debate about cold calling, I think we have the beginnings of a persuasive research pool. So far — at least — it seems to encourage class participation (which should, in turn, increase learning).

Yes: we need to be good at this technique for it to work. Yes: we should respect important boundary conditions.

And, based on the research I’ve seen so far, I plan to keep using cold calling myself.


After I wrote this blog post, I discovered that LOTS of people have been adding to this debate.

Here’s Bradley Busch.

Here’s Tom Sherrington.

No doubt others have got wise ideas!

Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B. (2013). Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation. Journal of Management Education37(3), 305-341.

Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B. (2019). Leveling the playing field: How cold-calling affects class discussion gender equity. Journal of Education and Learning8(2), 14-24.

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