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Cold-Calling in the Law Classroom

In the years I've spent in legal academia, both as a student and a teacher, there's never been a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of cold-calling students. In the past year, however, I've heard arguments by faculty members that cold-calling works as a form of formative assessment for class, despite the fact that only one student is answering a given question. Recently, however, as I've been exploring brain science, I've been wondering about how much learning actually takes place inside classrooms where cold-calling is the primary method of instruction. Are we making learning more difficult than it needs to be?

I've written briefly before about the effects of retrieval. Retrieval is the stage of the learning process in which students access information from their long-term memories.[1] Regular practice retrieving information leads to both long-term retention of information (basically, because we have had practice finding information in the knowledge structures of our minds, we are better able to later call that information to our minds later) as well as to a boost in students' higher-order thinking and transfer of knowledge.[2]

While on its face, cold-calling is a type of retrieval practice, a recent study calls into question how much students are able to learn via cold-calling if they aren't the one being called on. Powerful Learning, an excellent new book co-authored by cognitive scientist Pooja K. Agarwal and educator Patrice M. Bain, looks to a study by Sarah Tauber and her team, writing:

"[C]old calling doesn't guarantee that all students are engaged in retrieval practice. The students who aren't called on are "off the hook" and no longer responsible for thinking about a response. In fact, research led by Sarah Tauber has demonstrated that when student engage in retrieval practice covertly (in their head, as opposed to an overt written or verbal response), their learning doesn't increase. In other words, we may expect that all of our students are retrieving when we ask questions during lessons, but it's likely that they aren't receiving any benefit unless they're the one being called on."[3]

To be fair, asking a question and just calling on the first person to raise their hand probably has similar issues. We might have a few more students engage in retrieval practice in these situations, as normally a few hands will go up, but we have students who never raise their hand and probably also are not engaging in retrieval practice.

There are some ways to modify in-class questioning so that it allows every student an opportunity to retrieve. Ask a question and then have students jot down an answer or have a discussion with their neighbors. You can then call on one student to report back on the discussion or to provide an answer and continue the discussion as a wider class. This will provide every student in class the opportunity to engage in retrieval practice. 

The bottom line is that relying primarily on cold-calling simply because it's the tradition in legal academia is no longer good enough. Our job as professors is to teach our students and doing something just because it's what we've always done, when it has been scientifically shown not to increase student learning, is detrimental to their learning and growth. I believe we can do better.



[1] Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 88-90 (2014).

[2] Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning 39 (2019).

[3] Id. at 86.

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