Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.30.13Guest Post: Joaquin Hernandez on the connection between Cold Call and CFU (video)

 I recently received an email from a teaching friend of mine in which she described the following challenge: “I’ll lead a lesson, and I think it’s going great.  I’ll do a lot of Checks For Understanding (CFU), and students will get them right. But then I grade the exit tickets, and I realize that no one seems to be getting it. It’s like a night and day difference.”

As teachers, I’m sure we’ve all faced this experience. In one moment, you think things are humming along, and then suddenly, you discover that kids did not—in fact—master what you taught.

What was more puzzling was that my friend’s CFUs were nicely aligned to her objectives. On paper, they should have given her accurate information about student understanding. Hoping to gain more insight and context on her class, I sat in on a lesson. This teacher was incredible in so many ways (joyful atmosphere, strong Pacing, rigorous content), but by the end of the lesson, she ran into the same lesson/exit ticket performance gap. During our debrief, I was reminded of just how difficult it is to collect accurate information about student understanding—even when you ask students the right questions.

At Taxonomy towers, we’ve thought a lot about different barriers teachers face on the road to effectively CFU-ing. Here are five that I came across while helping my teacher friend:

  1. Student Anxiety about Error: When kids equate accuracy with intelligence, they can be hesitant to publicly admit their errors—especially when everyone else seems to be “getting it right.”
  2. Narrowly Sampling: If you’re not intentional, it’s easy to “sample” or call on students who are at one end of the spectrum of likely skill, which won’t give you the full picture of student understanding. It’s important to ask students across the spectrum to yield better information about who mastered what.
  3. Insufficient Wait Time: When things seem to be clicking, it’s easy to speed through questions. This can skew data in a negative direction, especially if students don’t get enough think time to process a question they can answer.
  4. Self-Report: If you ask kids whether they “get” something, the answer is almost always “yes.” It’s hard for students to know or identify what they don’t know.
  5. Disengagement: Disengaged students may answer questions incorrectly because they’ve lost their place in the lesson or stop participating when their energy level dips. Don’t mistake fatigue or inattentiveness for misunderstanding.

All this begs the question: how can we overcome these barriers to effective CFU-ing? As Doug often says, when in a pinch, look to a great teacher for a solution. Exhibit A: New clip of Bryan Belanger of Troy Prep Middle School using Cold Call (calling on students whether or not their hands are raised) to effectively Check For Understanding:


One thing that Bryan’s clip illustrates is just how versatile the technique Cold Call is. When leveraged effectively, Cold Call can help you overcome the five barriers, and in turn, ensure you collect better information about student understanding. If you’re curious, here’s a recap of how Bryan uses Cold Call to more effectively Check For Understanding:


Barrier to Effective CFU

How Bryan Uses Cold Call to Overcome It

Student Anxiety about Error
  • Keeps it Positive
    • He exudes calm and positivity in response to correct and incorrect answers (e.g., smiles, maintains a relaxed posture, strikes a neutral yet supportive tone). This de-stigmatizes error and lets kids know that his Cold Calls aren’t intended to be “gotchas.” Consequently, kids feel comfortable revealing their errors and taking risks.
    • He makes an effort to come back to kids who get it wrong (e.g, Lanice at the end). In doing so, he communicates that:

1) I’m coming back to you because I know you can master this.

2) In this class, error is not a dead end, but a starting point for learning.

3) I’m Cold Calling because I want to help you succeed

4) It’s OK if you don’t get it now because you eventually will

Narrowly Sampling
  • Unbundle and Scatter: Bryan unbundles his questions into smaller parts and then scatters them across his class. This enables him to quickly assess a variety of students at different skill levels. To ensure reliability, he even follows up with students who initially struggled to make sure they truly understand the material and aren’t providing false positives.
Insufficient Wait Time
  • Manages the Pause: Bryan lengthens the amount of Wait Time that he gives students after Cold Calling with more rigorous questions and shortens his Wait Time after posing easier, more unbundled questions (e.g., “Is this growth or decay, Nyesha?”). By strategically managing the length of his pause, Bryan gives students a fair opportunity to show how much they know.
  • Normalize “Checking”: Bryan Rejects Self-Report by asking follow-up Cold Calls (i.e. “checking”). He’s so consistent about doing this that students now expect to be held accountable for demonstrating true understanding. This culture of individual accountability encourages students to be as honest as possible about what they know and don’t know. It also makes it easier for Bryan to check understanding in the future.
    • Example: When John self-reports that he understands the difference between two problems, Bryan Cold Calls John to answer a similar problem later in the lesson. Since this is par for the course, John answers without a hitch.
  • Balance of Taking Hands/Cold Call/Call and Response*:
    • Bryan keeps kids engaged and the pace of the lesson “feeling fast” by balancing his use of Cold Call, Taking Hands, and Call and Response. Each shift between techniques adds a “milepost” and creates the “illusion of speed.”
    • His Cold Calls keep kids in suspense about which student he’ll call on next. Similarly, his Call and Response keeps kids on their toes; in order to respond, they have to be following the lesson closely.
  • Systematic: Bryan makes sure students know that the Cold Call is universal and impersonal.
    • He Cold Calls Lanice twice, which shows students that everyone is always fair game for a Cold Call.
    • Even when he pre-calls John (i.e. lets him know he’ll come back to him for a Cold Call), Bryan keeps him feeling accountable. He doesn’t return immediately to John, but rather, farms parts of question #6 to other students. In doing so, he lets John know a Cold Call is coming, but not exactly when.

*Note: For those keeping score, we counted that he Takes Hands three times, Cold Calls four times, and use Call and Response twice. (Feel free to let us know if you saw otherwise!)


What are some other barriers to effective Checking For Understanding? What other techniques do you use that help you overcome those?

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2 Responses to “Guest Post: Joaquin Hernandez on the connection between Cold Call and CFU (video)”

  1. Michael Delfavero
    September 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Great video and post! thank you for sharing!

  2. Michael Delfavero
    September 30, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Great post and video. Thank you for sharing!

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