Calling On Students Randomly

It’s all too easy for me to fall into the pattern of letting a few students do most of the talking.  I’ve gotten better at asking everyone to think for 30 seconds before allowing someone to talk through their answer.  But that still means that a few students always volunteer.

I’m tempted to tell students to “only raise your hand if you have a question,” so that I can call on them to give answers.  As a way of randomizing my choices, I’ve considered everything from the elementary-school go-to idea of popsicle sticks with names on them, to web-based random-name choosers, to carrying around a 20-sided die.  But popsicle sticks seemed a little childish, software means waiting for a computer to boot and a browser to launch, and the die will seem suspiciously un-random unless I can expose the lookup table.

Courtesy of Jim B L via Flickr

The answer came to me yesterday as I was rummaging through my junk drawer.  Playing cards are just the right tool for the job.  I pulled 17 cards out of an old deck, wrote a student’s name on the face of each one, wrapped an elastic around them, and threw them in my bag.  Possibilities:

  • Use them to call on students equally, by taking the card out of the deck when they’ve answered
  • Use them to call on students randomly, by putting the card back into the deck
  • Get a student to shuffle them at the beginning of class
  • Let a responding student choose a card from the deck if they need help answering a question
  • Use them as something to hold on to/shuffle as a reminder to slow down and not interrupt when students are talking or working
  • Break out a card trick when students are exhausted or zoned out or we desperately need some levity.

I brought them to class yesterday and used them to call on students equally.  It was easy, unobtrusive, and wasted zero class time.  The students seemed to think it was funny.  Incidentally, I took all the face cards out of the deck before labeling them, in case anyone had a reaction to the value of the card their name was on (they didn’t).  Bonus: it took care of my attendance too (missing students went in a separate pile), always helpful at this time of year when I’m still second-guessing myself on some of the names.


  1. Hi Mylene,

    I do something similar and use my business cards since I will never make it through my box of 500 evar. I also note on the card the dates that I call on people.

    • Heh. There are times when I don’t use the cards — if I’m asking a question that some people might find uncomfortable answering, like “Did anyone find that harder than they expected? Would you be willing to share your thoughts?”

      The other time is when I think someone is zoning out, texting, or whispering with their neighbour. Then I usually ask, “XYZ just made a really great point. ABC, do you think you could restate that in your own words?” The answer, of course, is “no.” So I ask XYZ, “could you help out your colleague and say that again?” Then I really do ask the chatty student to restate in their own words, and thank them for their attention.

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