Student perspective of GTA strategies to reduce feelings of anxiousness with cold-calling
Constance M. Doty1,
1Department of Physics, University of Central Florida, 4111 Libra Drive, Orlando, FL, 32816
Ashley A. Geraets2, Tong Wan1, Erin K. H. Saitta2 and Jacquelyn J. Chini1
1Department of Physics, University of Central Florida, 4111 Libra Drive, Orlando, FL, 32816
2Department of Chemistry, University of Central Florida, 4111 Libra Drive, Orlando, FL, 32816
We investigated student perceptions of cold calling on their feelings of anxiousness and how graduate
teaching assistants (GTAs) alleviated these feelings when students shared their ideas publicly in the context of
tutorial and laboratory sessions. Physics and chemistry GTAs who led active-learning tutorials and labs
practiced cold calling paired with error framing with avatar-students in a mixed-reality simulator at the
beginning of the semester. Then, we observed the GTAs teaching real students in their actual classroom. We
recruited eleven students from sections led by GTAs who were observed to use cold calling in their classroom
to participate in semi-structured interviews. Several students reported that cold calling increased their feelings
of anxiousness. However, students also reported that GTAs used strategies paired with cold calling that reduced
their feelings of anxiousness, such as acknowledging student responses as valuable and remembering student
names. We discuss implications for professional development on active learning strategies.
The STEM education community has used a variety of
training formats to support graduate teaching assistants’
(GTA) development of the pedagogical skills needed for
active learning, such as pedagogy seminars and practice
microteaching to peers [1-4]. In addition, researchers and
educators have described a variety of pedagogical strategies
instructors can use to support student engagement in active
learning (e.g., [6-7]). Two instructional strategies that
promote student participation in the classroom are cold
calling and error framing.
In cold calling, an instructor calls on a non-volunteering
student by name to respond to a question (the instructor may
or may not have prompted the students to have a response
ready before asking them to answer) [1,7]. Cold calling has
been reported to increase student participation with active
learning activities like whole class discussion . Random
call, a specific version of cold calling where the instructor
uses a randomized list to select who to call on, has been
demonstrated to increase equity in participation .
However, researchers have reported that cold calling can
also increase students’ feelings of anxiousness [10,11].
Cooper, Downing and Brownell propose students’ fear of
negative evaluation as a possible mechanism through which
cold calling can increase anxiety . In a classroom
setting, fear of negative evaluation is students’ fear of being
negatively judged by their instructor or their peers when they
participate in a classroom activity or share their ideas .
To reduce the potential negative impact of cold calling on
students’ affect, an instructor could pair cold calling with
another teaching strategy to promote student engagement
while also helping students feel comfortable with sharing
their ideas in front of the class.
In error framing, the instructor creates an environment
that error is framed as a natural part of the learning process
[1,7,13-15]. Instructors can error frame while introducing an
activity (e.g., by stating that students should expect to engage
in “productive failure”)  and in response to student errors
(e.g., by framing student ideas as common and reasonable)
. Becker et al. and Eddy, Converse, and Wenderoth have
suggested the use of error framing to decrease student
anxiety related to active learning classroom activities and to
encourage student participation in class [1,13]. However, in
the same studies, instructors were rarely observed to use
error framing [1,13]. Therefore, the impact of error framing
on student affect is a continuing investigation.
In our study, we are engaged in a project exploring the
use of a mixed-reality classroom simulator as a safe
environment for STEM GTAs to practice instructional
strategies with avatar-students. The simulator is mixed-
reality because GTAs are in a physical classroom while they
interact with a virtual class of students who are puppeteered
through human-in-the-loop technology. While GTA
professional development often focuses on changing GTA
beliefs about teaching and learning, it is also important to
explore changes in GTAs’ teaching actions and impacts on
their students . In this paper, we explore the impact of
GTA use of cold calling on the undergraduate students they
taught. We recruited students from the classes of GTAs who
were observed to use cold calling and asked them about the
strategies their GTAs used along with cold calling to
increase student comfort. We identified seven strategies the
undergraduate students reported their GTAs used that
increased their comfort sharing their ideas in front of peers:
1) error framing; 2) allowing other students to assist with
answering the cold call question; 3) building off of what
students know; 4) providing neutral responses with
explanations; 5) using student names; 6) calling on student
groups; and 7) providing thinking time before cold calling.
Based on these findings, we suggest that GTAs already have
and can learn new strategies to reduce student anxiety
associated with cold calling.
GTAs leading the introductory inquiry-based general
chemistry lab  (~24 students) and the introductory
physics “mini-studio” (recitation and lab combined) 
(~32 students) participated in a one-day boot camp during
the first week of the spring 2019 semester in addition to their
weekly prep meetings. Each GTA participated in two seven-
minute sessions in a mixed-reality simulator . GTAs
were prompted to practice cold calling and error framing
with avatar-students while facilitating a whole class
discussion. The GTAs rehearsed in the simulator in groups
of two or three. Each GTA led one seven-minute session,
followed by five minutes of feedback from the facilitators
and a second round of seven-minute sessions with the avatar-
students. Throughout the spring 2019 semester, we observed
ten GTAs in physics and eleven GTAs in chemistry teaching
in their classrooms four times using a modified version of
the Laboratory Observation Protocol for Undergraduate
STEM (LOPUS) . We added codes to the protocol for
cold calling and error framing. We observed four GTAs
(three in chemistry and one in physics) using cold calling and
error framing in at least two of the four observations.
We recruited eleven students from sections taught by the
four identified GTAs via a survey posted on their course
website to participate in one-hour semi-structured interviews
about their experiences in their physics mini-studio or
chemistry lab. Considering that students may have different
class schedules and various comfort levels for individual
interviews, students were allowed to choose either focus
group or individual interviews. Seven students participated
in individual interviews, and four students participated in
two-person focus groups; the students in each focus group
shared the same GTA. Due to the social nature of focus
groups, participants' ideas voiced during a focus group may
be different than the ideas they would provide during an
individual interview. Thus, we present our findings
disaggregated by interview type in Table 1. All interviews
were audio-recorded and transcribed.
Two researchers (C.M.D. and A.A.G.) conducted the
semi-structured interviews. The interview protocol was
developed after reviewing relevant literature (e.g., [1,7,11])
which provides evidence for the validity of our
interpretations of what students say because the participants
were prompted to talk about the relevant concepts. During
the interviews, students were asked to discuss the impact of
cold calling on their feelings of anxiousness  and were
prompted to describe what their GTA has done to make them
feel comfortable with sharing their ideas with the whole class
or their lab group.
C. Data analysis
C.M.D. and A.A.G analyzed transcripts of the student
interviews in multiple rounds using the constant comparative
method to develop a codebook . First, each researcher
individually identified key phrases and documented
emergent themes in the transcripts. We then compared
phrases and themes to develop a codebook with seven codes
for identified strategies, including code names, descriptions,
and exemplar student quotes. Lastly, we each independently
implemented the codebook on all the transcripts. We
investigated inter-rater reliability (IRR) for our
implementation of the seven codes using Gwet’s AC1, which
is robust to low trait prevalence . Our Gwet’s AC1
values ranged from 0.89 to 0.94 for all seven codes across
the nine transcripts. Gwet’s values greater than 0.81 indicate
near perfect agreement; thus, we have evidence for the
reliability of our implementation of the seven codes .
After the individual coding, we discussed discrepancies in
our implementation of the codebook until we reached
agreement. We present the agreed upon coding.
We found ten out of eleven students reported an increase
in anxiety associated with their GTA’s use of cold calling,
comparable to Cooper, Downing and Brownell’s findings
from students in a large enrollment biology course .
However, we also found all the students had perceived their
anxiety associated with cold calling to decrease when their
GTA paired cold calling with another teaching strategy. We
identified seven teaching strategies students reported their
GTA to use with cold calling that increased their comfort
with sharing their ideas in front of their peers, as shown in
Table I. Since GTAs were instructed to rehearse error
framing, we discuss this strategy first.
TABLE I. Teaching strategies students identified to reduce
their feelings of anxiousness related to cold call. We indicate
the type of interview: individual (I) or focus group (F). P
(physics) and C (chemistry) indicate the discipline of the
GTA. The number next to P or C indicates a different GTA
in the same discipline. The number of participants for each
GTA is shown.
*These students did not give specific error framing-type
statements, but their responses suggest an error-friendly climate.
A. Error framing
In their training, GTAs were prompted to practice error
framing with avatar-students in the simulator and were
observed to use it in their classrooms. Notably, three students
perceived their anxiety with cold calling to decrease when
their GTA used an error framing-type statement in response
to student answers. Brocky (P1)  explained that they
were nervous with cold calling at first but their GTA’s
response to an incorrect answer helped them feel more
comfortable. They provided an example:
Int.: Do you think that’s typical of your physics lab with
professors like that or is it kind of that specific GTA has a
really good way of handling wrong answer?
Brocky: Yeah. I think it's more specifically him ‘cause he
knows, he'll [P1] say ‘I know this is really hard so don't
worry if you answer it wrong'.
Brocky perceived that GTA’s response mitigated their
nervousness with cold calling as their GTA emphasized
effort over correctness. While three students gave specific
examples of GTA responses similar to Brocky’s example,
five other students reported an overall feeling of not being
afraid to share an incorrect answer in front of the class.
Amari (C2) and Jamie (C2) explained their reasoning:
Amari: I felt like it made me more comfortable with doing
something wrong because…
Jamie: I think he was very big on the fact that we were
just learning this stuff and it wasn't about getting the right
answers, but like the process.
Val (C1) shared similar feelings about their GTA’s
responses to incorrect student answers:
Int.: … when you don't necessarily know the right answer
when you're called on, do you feel okay with giving a
Val: … he makes it known that you don't need to have a
correct answer. Any answer is a good answer as long as you
In total, eight students reported GTA responses that were
either consistent with the definition of error framing or with
the implication of an error-friendly climate existed in their
B. Allowing other students to assist
Eight students expressed comfort with cold calling when
their GTA gave them the option to say, “I don’t know” and
allowed their peers to help with the cold-call question. When
asked about how being called on affected their feelings of
anxiousness, Marley (C3) responded:
Marley: I mean I didn’t really care … ‘cause I feel like
sometimes when like you're called on and you have to give
an answer, that's where the anxiety comes from but there are
people who are like ‘I have no idea’ and he was like ‘okay’
and he picked someone else so.
Bo (C1) and Jordan (C1) described their reasoning about
how their GTA allowing others to help them answer the cold
call helped reduce their anxiety:
Int: … why do you feel like the pressure was relieved?
Bo: Because not only is he looking for the answer, but
there's also other people in the class that are looking for the
Jordan: I feel like it saves time. If I'm dead in my tracks
and have to sit there for a good minute while everyone looks
at me waiting for an answer, oh man is that uncomfortable!
These examples are representative of the ways students
described GTAs allowing them to back out of a cold call
decreased their feelings of anxiousness associated with cold
C. Building off what students know
Six students perceived their GTA to build off their prior
knowledge by encouraging students to say what they did
know or by asking questions about content students already
knew during cold calling. Amari (C2) was asked to explain:
Int.: So, you say he was nice about it (cold calling), could
you elaborate more on that?
Amari: So, if he called on you and you didn't know, he
would encourage you to say something that you did know,
and then he would build off of that.
Like Amari’s GTA, the other five students reported their
GTA to encourage them to say what they already knew as a
way of alleviating their feelings of anxiousness with cold
D. Providing neutral responses with explanations
Five students felt relieved after being cold called when
their GTA responded the same way regardless of the
correctness of a student’s answer. Marley (C3) described
similar feelings as the other four students. When asked what
their GTA had done to make them feel comfortable with
sharing their ideas, Marley responded:
Marley: I think that whether you were right or wrong like
there was always an explanation. So, I mean, it's like when I
was wrong like you didn't feel like it.
Marley felt comfortable with sharing their ideas because
their GTA would respond in a similar way to any student
response with an explanation.
E. Using student names
Four students expressed they felt more comfortable with
being called on when GTAs learned their names and used
them as part of the cold call. Val (C1) was the only one to
explain their reasoning:
Int.: …having him know your name and knowing that you
could possibly be called on, does that affect your feelings in
Val: I feel like yeah because he knows my name, because
it's more like I know everybody in the class, it's such a small
class, I feel better about answering and being called on.
Val explained how their GTA knowing student names
made them feel connected to their classmates and more
comfortable sharing their answer in front of the class.
Learning student names has been suggested to be the easiest
way for an instructor to demonstrate student care .
Undergraduate biology students expressed similar feelings
to Val when the bridge program faculty used their names
when interacting with them resulting in the student
perception of the faculty to be approachable and helpful .
F. Calling on student groups
Four students perceived their GTA to cold call on student
groups during whole class discussions. Quinn (C1)
expressed why they felt comfortable sharing their ideas:
Quinn: …within our groups we have multiple brains, and
we were all thinking together, and then we would share as a
group. So that's good at making people comfortable because
it's not just yourself talking.
Quinn felt comfortable responding to a cold call when
they were able to respond as a group because they were not
alone. Brocky (P1) shared an example from their class:
Brocky: …before he's gone around the room and every
group will, like one person will answer what they think and
then we'll just compare… which is nice ‘cause everyone does
have a different answer, so it's not like one person's wrong.
Int: Okay. How does that way of doing it impact your
feeling of anxiousness?
Brocky: A lot less.
Similar to the other two students, Quinn and Brocky felt
comfortable with cold calling when their GTA called on their
student group because they were not alone with responding.
Further investigation is necessary about the impact of calling
on student groups on student anxiety because students have
reported a mixture of negative and positive impacts on their
anxiety when working in groups .
G. Providing thinking time before cold calling
Two students perceived their GTA to provide thinking
time before they called on students or expected a student
response. Bo (C1) explained:
Bo: …he'd ask you a question, and we would've already
written it down. So, I don't really have to worry about what
I'm going to say because I've already written it down, so I
would just reciprocate what I wrote down but in a shortened,
more concise manner.
As Bo explained, time to think before answering
mediated the pressure of thinking in the moment. Similarly,
Cooper, Downing and Brownell found students reported
their anxiety to increase with cold calling when they were
not given enough time to articulate their thoughts before they
were expected to respond .
IV. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
In this study, we found students perceived their GTA to
implement a variety of teaching strategies that reduced their
anxiety associated with cold calling. Prior research has
similarly shown students enrolled in active learning biology
courses in community college expressed they would feel
more comfortable with cold calling if their instructor paired
it with other teaching strategies . These findings support
our hypothesis that pairing cold calling with another
teaching strategy can reduce student anxiety associated with
Our findings also indicate that GTAs might already be
aware of the anxiety associated with cold calling and are
proactive about mitigating student anxiety with other
teaching strategies. However, different students may have
different reactions to the same strategy even when used by
the same GTA. Therefore, we recommend that GTA
preparation include rehearsal with a variety of teaching
strategies that increase student participation and reduce
student anxiety, as it is not likely that one strategy will work
for all students. As the literature about how an instructor can
effectively reduce student anxiety with cold calling is
limited, future research could include investigating how
GTAs implement cold calling in their courses and which
teaching strategies implemented by GTAs are the most
effective for minimizing student anxiety with cold calling.
In addition, eight of the eleven students described cold
calling paired with an error framing statement or error-
friendly climate to reduce their anxiety associated with cold
calling, similar to what community college biology students
suggested might reduce their anxiety associated with cold
calling . Error framing was a teaching strategy the
participating GTAs had practiced pairing with cold calling at
the beginning of the semester. Future research could
investigate how error framing paired with cold calling can
mitigate the anxiety associated with cold calling.
Furthermore, we are currently comparing GTA classroom
observation data between semesters with and without the
simulator training to investigate if the intervention
influenced the GTAs to choose error framing as a teaching
strategy. The results could inform future GTA training.
Nine out of eleven students described the actions of their
GTA to be relatable, personable, and helpful, which created
a welcoming environment for them to share their ideas. The
student perception of their GTA creating a welcoming
environment is similar to a strategy described by Kerssen‐
Griep as instructor “communication maintaining a climate
safe for independent thought and risk-taking” specifically
when instructors learned student names and shared personal
information . During analysis we identified that student-
perceived teaching strategies, like using student names and
providing thinking time, aligned with core constructs of the
conceptual framework facework (actions taken to prevent
threats to and to maintain students’ self-image) [29-32].
Instructor use of facework has been linked to an increase in
students’ willingness to participate in classroom activities
and with students’ course satisfaction [31,32]. Future
investigations about the impact of teaching strategies on
student affective behaviors, like anxiety, could be guided by
such a framework that has been applied in other areas of
The generalizability of our claims are limited by several
factors. Our sample size was small, and we did not
investigate our findings across identity groups. Moreover, it
is possible the interviews filtered students who do not have
high levels of social anxiety in their classroom.
We only investigated one instructional setting. Here, we
focused on small sections (24–32 students); however the
class size and type of instructor (i.e., faculty or GTA) could
have influenced the anxiety with cold calling. Cooper et al.
also found students expressed more comfort with cold
calling in a smaller class . It is difficult to disentangle the
teaching strategies with the size of the classroom, as seen in
Val’s quote about their GTA’s use of student names.
Additionally, students’ comfort with cold calling may vary
across instructor type. Future research could compare how
different instructional styles impact student anxiety.
This work is supported in part by the National Science
Foundation DUE Grant No. 1725554.
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