Randomizing Is More Important Than Ever

by Dr. Stephen Fleenor

The COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-2021 school year has brought disruptions and frustrations to the lives of teachers, students, and parents like nothing we have experienced before. But along with the many changes that virtual, hybrid, and socially distanced learning have brought, this pandemic has shed new light on the most essential practices for students’ academic and socioemotional well-being. Working with teachers over the past ten months as they adjust to their new challenges, I am convinced more than ever that randomly calling on students is one of these essential practices. 

As teachers, we love to ask questions. In the virtual and hybrid lessons I have observed, as in the in-person lessons I observed before the pandemic, I still see questions as the number one driver of instruction. We ask all kinds of questions: academic questions (“What is the difference between mood and tone?”), procedural questions (“So what are we going to do in this assignment?”), and socioemotional questions (“What’s the best thing that happened to you yesterday?”). We ask questions so much because we see them as thinking opportunities for our students. We use questions to get our students’ gears turning, to see them make connections and light up, and watch them grow in their ability to think critically.   

But while we love to ask our students all of these questions, I sometimes hear mixed reviews about the practice of using a system of randomization for calling on students. In the whole-class setting, randomizing is neither a novel approach nor a complicated strategy. It is also a long-celebrated best practice for promoting accountability and participation in lessons (McDougal and Cordeiro, 1992). However, the practice of randomization also at times elicits a full spectrum of emotions from teachers and learners alike, from inclusion and alertness on one end of the spectrum to concern, trepidation, and even outright disdain on the other end of the spectrum.

For us, this wide range of responses has everything to do with our desire to make our kids feel successful. We want our students to be accountable and feel included, but we very much do not want our students to feel on-the-spot, anxious, or embarrassed. From my experience, however, when randomization is used routinely and intentionally, students’ anxieties are actually minimized, because they feel included and valued.

Let’s take a look at two possible ways a teacher could ask students to respond to a question. In the first scenario, the teacher asks the question, then chooses a specific student to answer. By choosing this student, what is often communicated to the rest of the students in the room (even on a subconscious level) is that the teacher thinks that this one specific student is more qualified to answer the question than any other student in the room. Of course that is not at all what we would ever want to communicate, but kids (especially adolescent kids) are naturally insecure and more likely to err towards “I can’t” than “I can” without support from their teachers, parents, and mentors.

Now imagine the second scenario, in which the teacher asks a question and then uses a randomization system to call on a student. The subtle communication in this scenario is that the teacher believes that every student in the room is completely qualified to answer the question, so much so that he or she is willing to put it into the hands of chance to decide who will share a response.

But can randomization work for virtual or hybrid lessons, despite technological or logistical issues? Absolutely! We can strive to overcome any issues by assuming best intentions and offering our students (and ourselves) grace and patience. For students with poor internet connections and choppy audio, thanking and celebrating them for even their interrupted responses and affording them the time to type their response into the chat, accomplishes the key goals of inclusion and accountability. For students who are unresponsive for unknown reasons, a simple “It looks like we’re having some issues, so I’ll ask you again in a little bit” can signal to the class and the student that we respect them and will not give up on any one of them. It also puts that student on our radar to check in with them later about any technical, logistical, academic, or socioemotional challenges they may be facing.

Stephen Randomization

When using randomization, whether in virtual, hybrid, or in-person classes, I have found the following to be true: 

1. Randomization is most effective when used regularly

Teachers know how easily classroom culture can erode when norms are not regularly revisited and followed throughout the year. When randomization is used too sporadically, students may see it as a tool of punishment for being off task. When randomization is used regularly, however, students see it as a pillar of the classroom culture of inclusion. Regular use of randomization is also helpful for us as teachers. If we know that even the lowest-performing student might be called on, we will be reminded to take every action to ensure success for all students before we call on students: providing think time; having students look at visuals or the text; structuring responses with sentence stems; and giving students the opportunity to share on the chat or with their breakout groups. These actions are essential for struggling learners, but also empowering for all learners to think deeply and critically about the content.

2. Randomizing using open-ended questions set students up for success

Open-ended questions are particularly inclusive because they have no one right answer. They allow students to express their understanding using their voice and their words. When a student provides an answer to an open-ended question, a teacher can highlight the parts of that student’s response that productively contribute to understanding of the academic concepts. For example, if a student responds that the cell membrane wraps around the cell with its DNA, which is a partly wrong statement (the cell membrane does not have DNA), we can highlight the correct aspect of the answer by saying, “You’re absolutely right that the cell membrane wraps around the cell. Excellent! Let’s hear from someone else what an important function of the cell membrane is.” As in the example, this is especially effective when we call on multiple students, so as to construct a whole-class understanding that is rooted in the students’ perspectives and unique experiences.

3. The goal of randomizing should be for each student to contribute

Above all else, randomization is a tool to give every student a voice in the class discussion. We can communicate this by emphasizing that there are no wrong answers and celebrating each student’s response, regardless of how strongly academic or on-point it may be. Misunderstandings expressed in students’ responses can be addressed throughout the lesson, but let’s not forget to communicate to students that the most important thing they can do is to simply make the contribution to the class discussion.

In communicating a sense of belief and confidence by including each student, we can actually build up students’ self-concepts so much so that they’ll want to be part of the classroom discussion. Although randomization involves only one student being called on at a time, the anticipation of the possibility of being called on, combined with a belief in oneself, leads all students to actively think about the question being asked.

Even before the pandemic, the use of randomization systems in classrooms helped prevent students from being in teachers’ blind spots, silently struggling, or simply spending most of the day academically voiceless. During this pandemic, especially during virtual and hybrid lessons, a habitual practice of randomly calling on students can continue to make all the difference in helping a student feel included and part of the class community. As frustrating as a muted black box is for teachers, it is doubly disheartening for students to not know how to participate in the lesson. With a randomization system, and a commitment to using it as a tool for inclusion, we can engage and empower all of our students in this school year and beyond. 

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McDougall, D. & Cordeiro, P. (1992). Effects of random questioning expectations on education majors’ preparedness for lecture and discussion. College Student Journal, 26 (2), 193-198.

2 thoughts on “Randomizing Is More Important Than Ever

  1. Do you have any specific recommendations of ways to randomize in remote teaching? Any specific apps or websites that you love? Thank you for this article! It’s exactly what I was looking for.


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