UF study: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’ class tool may aid math students
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s a feeling nearly everyone remembers experiencing at least once: sitting in class unprepared, silently praying the teacher won’t call your name.
For those students, the days of quiet safety may be numbered.
A new University of Florida study suggests that when teachers use a hand-held computer that randomly chooses whom to call on, even the quiet student in the back won’t be missed.
And that may not be a bad thing. It turns out students actually do better in class when they know their number could come up at any time.
Paige Allison, who did the research for her dissertation in educational anthropology at UF, found that students at one North Central Florida high school where she conducted her research reported they were more engaged in the activities of school success when teachers used the name generator.
“The interview data from the teachers and students shows this technique helped students do those things that we know help them to be successful in school – paying attention, being prepared for class, staying focused and doing homework,” Allison said.
Allison, who teaches high school math, said she became interested in doing the study after listening to a radio report describing how math teachers call on boys more than girls.
“There is real, although subtle intimidation that takes place in the classroom reinforcing the idea that women and minority students cannot do math as well as white male students,” she said. “Research has shown that teachers not only tend to call on white male students more frequently than other students, but they respond to their questions and requests for help differently and provide them with entirely different experiences in the classroom.”
One reason girls can get less attention in math class is that teachers may find themselves calling on boys, who tend to be more assertive in class, Allison said.
“People aren’t aware of how hard a teacher physically has to work, not only to manage but to actually teach 150 children a day,” she said. “As in any activity, the natural tendency is to want to conserve energy. It’s easier and faster to let the student who knows the answer respond for you. So the quiet person in the corner who doesn’t raise a hand doesn’t get called on as much.”
Often, teachers may call on students as a way to keep them on task or stop misbehavior, Allison said. “In an effort to maintain order in the classroom, teachers respond to this kind of pressure,” she said. “When I became aware of the research on this subject, I noticed that I called on boys more than girls as kind of a behavior control management device.”
Mathematics is important because it is a gate-keeping course for many college preparatory courses that lead to high-paying scientific and technical fields, yet math-related careers are not sought by females and minorities to the same extent as white males, she said.
To test the effectiveness of a random naming system, Allison compared participation rates of students in 15 math classes where the device was used with students in 11 math classes where it was not used.
Contrary to expectations, the study found no significant difference between classes that used the new experimental technique and those where teachers called on students according to their own methods, Allison said. This showed that teachers at this particular school did not show bias in calling on one gender or ethnic group more than another, she said.
The random questioning device was effective, she said, because students who participated in a series of focus groups afterward said they were more likely to show up for class prepared and to concentrate on what was being said when they knew the computer could spell out their name at any time.
“Both students and teachers reported that students paid more attention in class,” she said. “They felt they had to tune in more because they knew they had a chance of being called on for every question.”
To make the computerized name-generating system non-threatening, Allison allowed students who were called on to take a free “pass” without penalty if they did not know the answer or did not wish to respond for some reason.
Jerome Dancis, a University of Maryland math professor emeritus, said Allison’s research is important because only a small number of students are willing to raise their hands in class, usually the best students. “It’s important for teachers to realize that students need to be encouraged to speak in class, especially high school students because this is a shy age,” he said.