DUB panel reacts to heated debate in the US

Is it okay to ask a student to answer a question in front of the whole class?

DUBpanel. Foto: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The lawyer Adam Mortara was astonished when giving a guest lecture at Yale Law School. He was told that he wasn't allowed to ask questions to the students wearing red name tags because they were the ones who didn't wish to be addressed in class.

Mortara expressed his astonishment on X, formerly known as Twitter. He said he was appalled by students behaving like little children and the faculty treating them that way too. Many X users agreed with his point of view.

But it wasn't unanimous, of course. Others were less dismissive, noting that asking questions to students at random, a practice also known as "cold-calling", can contribute to further deteriorating students' mental health, which has been in an increasingly poor state lately.

That's why American teachers sometimes adopt a system in which students can use name tags in three different colours. Green is for those who would like to say something, while yellow is for those who don't mind being asked something, and red is for those who prefer to stay out of the spotlight.

Nathan Robinson, the mind behind the colour system, explains in an op-ed published by Current Affairs why he thinks cold-calling is problematic. In his view, teachers sometimes cold call students to humiliate those who come unprepared to class. "The constant threat of being interrogated can make a class at law school intimidating, especially to those who are shy and don’t particularly enjoy the experience of watching dozens of other people see their logic exposed as faulty," he writes.

Is this a typical American debate? Or does it make sense to discuss this in the Netherlands as well, especially after Covid? Once the pandemic was over, UU teachers complained to DUB that many students were still trying to watch as many classes as possible online and, when they did go to class, they tried to hide or blend in with the crowd as much as possible. Are there any teachers in Utrecht who have stopped cold-calling students or are considering doing that? We asked the following question to our panel of students and staff members: 

Should a teacher be allowed to cold call a student during a lecture or group assignment?

As it turns out, the DUB panel is divided.

"Sigh... What a non-issue." The e-mail response we got from research analyst Mies van Steenbergen doesn't beat around the bush. "You should be able to expect from someone who is academically educated that they know what is being discussed in class and that they can aswer questions about it. Just put that phone away and pay attention."

Law student Pim van Achthoven doesn't take the issue seriously, either. "It's not like you don't know. If you go to a seminar, you know you might be asked something." Referring to discussions such as abolishing the cum laude distinction or lowering the number of credits required to move forward to the second year of a Bachelor's degree, Van Achthoven identifies a trend of attempting to make the university more accessible. "But that lowers the quality of education."

Earth Sciences student Chris Bil even thinks that teachers should be cold-calling students more often. "When a teacher asks something, he's usually met with silence, and then they have to answer their own question. I think they could get the class a bit more involved." In his opinion, only students with certain problems should be allowed to opt-out.

Sterre van Wierst, a Master's student in Cancer, Stem Cells & Developmental Studies, disagrees. She is glad that her teachers don't let students speak without being asked. She adds that students from her Master's already participate in class often.

She acknowledges that cold-calling can be valuable in group assignments at the Bachelor's level. But, when it comes to lectures, she is not in favour. "Many students are scared to be in the spotlight, especially when they don't know something. Even if a teacher reacts well to their ignorance, other students can be very judgmental. I'm sure many students will relate to that."

Psychology student Leví Bierhuizen also makes a distinction between group assignments and lectures. According to him, interaction is more important in the former. "But sometimes, there are 500 students in a lecture hall. Speaking in front of that many people is quite nerve-wracking, even if you ask for the floor yourself. When you are chosen or afraid of being chosen, it can be unnecessarily stressful."

Innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsoever agrees. He expects a more active attitude from students during work assignments. However, he notes that creating a safe learning space during work groups is easier. He wonders whether that happens in the United States too.

That said, he does cold call students during lectures. "I often establish 'let's stop and think moments,' where students get an opportunity to reflect on a question. Then, those who would like to share their answer can do so. But sometimes I do some cold-calling as well."

Philosopher Floris van den Berg says he refrains from asking questions to individual students. "I hated it when I was a student myself. I think it's more of a high school thing. It can lead to authoritarian power games, in which a teacher puts students on the spot in public."

According to Van den Berg, there is always a student who wants to answer a question. "Just keep waiting. Eventually, someone will raise their hand and more will follow."

He prefers to ask students to answer questions "collectively." For example, he asks them to reflect on a specific topic, one by one. "If a student says something that is not correct or if they are clearly not aware of the content of the readings, then I will mention that without personally attacking them."


What about the colour system used at Yale? Student Pim van Achthoven doesn't like the idea. "Studying at university becomes something free of any obligation, so it loses all allure. What a shame!"

Van Rijnsoever doesn't think the colour system is all that bad. "Maybe there will be more participation that way. After all, you know who you can address without them having to raise their hand. But, in practical terms, there would be obstacles because there are always people who forget their tag or the room is too big to see everything."

Sterre van Wierst makes the same remark: "The colour system seems fine for smaller groups, but let's be honest: you can't see those colours in the back of a lecture hall with 450 students, can you? So, you'll still be left with a conversation between the teacher and the dedicated students in the front row."

Last but not least, educational scientist Casper Hulshof welcomes the tag system but he doesn't have much confidence in it. He doubts whether people care that much about this issue in Utrecht. "If a student prefers not to be addressed, they can always just let the teacher know."