Calling on Students and Making Groups: Tips You Can Use Monday

In the last few posts we looked at some of the reasons why THAT student may have become THAT student.  The main idea was to look for positive things about THAT student, and that would shift your focus a little bit.

Today we will look at a couple of management ideas.  Remember, classroom management is not discipline.  Management is how the classroom is run.  Discipline is about what we do when a student steps out of line.

One thing that happens when we have THAT student in class is we start to call on students to answer questions a little bit differently.  First, we tend to call on students we think are most able to answer the particular kind of question we are asking.  If we subconsciously think Aaron is more capable, we call on him to answer questions that take higher levels of thinking.  If we subconsciously think Leia is less capable, we call on her to answer questions that have yes or no answers, or questions that involved low level thinking skills.

One of Roe’s Rules is about hand-raising.  Here it is:  There are two kinds of students who raise their hands to answer a question.  One is the student who actually knows the answer.  The other is the kid that wants to look like s/he knows the answer.  That’s the one who always answers, “I forgot”, when we call on him/her.  There are also two kinds of students who do not raise their hands.  One is the student who is praying, “Oh, please don’t call on me!”  The other is either day-dreaming or thinking, “Yeah, I know the answer but I’m not going to tell that !@#$% teacher what it is.”

I got to thinking about who does and who does not raise their hand, and about how we educators subconsciously direct particular kinds of questions to students who we think are capable of answering them.  I wondered how I could get every student to participate in answering questions without my subconscious running the show.  The solution was Roe’s Card Trick.

Here is how it works:  Write each student’s name on a 3×5 card.  (Or you can buy half size cards.  I liked the half size ones but I used to cut my cards myself.  I liked the half sized ones because they fit into the too small pockets manufacturers put into women’s pants.)  You now have a deck of X number of cards.  You can use this stack to call on students.  You ask a question, look at the name on the top of the deck of names, and then put that card on the bottom of the stack.

That’s where I discovered a flaw.  I discovered that once I had called on Aaron and put his name at the bottom of the stack, Aaron figured he will not be called on again until every other student in the class was called on.  That gave Aaron “permission” to start doing everything except pay attention to what was going on in class.

The solution was to have a second deck of cards with the students’ names.  Now you have a larger deck of cards and every student’s name is in the deck twice.  Students don’t know if their name is going to be first and fourth or tenth and twentieth.

Here is the procedure I taught the students.

  • Do not raise your hands to answer questions. I will call on you using this deck of cards.  Each student’s name is in the deck twice.
  • I will shuffle the deck regularly so we don’t know where your name will come up. You will have to pay attention to be able to answer a question when I call on you because you won’t know when the cards will turn up your name.  Because your name is in the deck twice, I could call on you right now and you don’t know if your name will be next again, or if it will come up again 15 names from now.
  • Now you may be thinking, what if I don’t know the answer? That’s not a problem.  If you don’t know the answer after a few seconds, I’ll put the card back into the deck more into the middle.  That means you’ll probably get called on again soon.  But it also means that nothing bad happens if you don’t know the answer.
  • Let’s try it out. Here is the question:  How do you get a turn to answer questions?  (Look at the cards and call on the student whose name is on top.)  Leia?  Yes, that’s right.  I will call on students using the cards.  Next question is this:  . . .

With a little practice, students got the idea.  They liked that it wasn’t real high stakes to get called on to answer a question because they could pass without a penalty – and in the first couple of weeks that I used them, I would make sure it was not the least bit high stakes by making sure my face was in neutral if a student didn’t know the answer.  We both liked that things moved along faster because I was not waiting to see who raised their hands.

Sometimes I would put my name into the deck, or I would answer questions if I turned up the name of a student who was absent.  The students got a kick out of me having to answer questions, especially if I pretended to be a student when answering.  (All those years in drama club helped a lot!)

I know some teachers use popsicle sticks to call on students.  That can be okay, but there are some drawbacks to using those.  First, usually each student’s name is in the can only once so if the student is called on, he knows he probably won’t be called on again.  Second, it is difficult to carry the popsicle sticks around, so they really work best when the teacher isn’t mobile.  When you use the cards, you can slip them in your pocket as you walk around the room.  The third thing is that some teachers make a production out of stirring the sticks, and selecting one.  This means that the lesson doesn’t flow along as quickly.  (THAT student often has difficulty with the time gap between when a question or directive is given and when it is executed.)

As time went on, I discovered another use for the cards.

I used a lot of small groups when I taught elementary and middle school.  One of the complaints I got regularly was from students who felt they were being burdened with being put into a group with THAT student.  I know a lot of education gurus recommend putting students into groups for the long term.  I tried that, but found that whatever group THAT student was in was the one that had the most problems and the most complaints.  I tried several different ideas when the idea struck me:  use the cards!  (Right now I’m thinking “Use the cards, Luke” in Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice.)

I changed the cards a little bit.  I used two different colors of cards.  Let’s say one set of cards is yellow.  Each has a student’s name on it.  The other set of cards is green and each has a student’s name on it as well.  Shuffled together they look pretty colorful and can be used as described above.  But when it is time to divide students into groups, the teacher can separate out one color of card, and then deal those out into however many groups s/he wants.  The students see that the group members are being selected randomly and they feel less targeted.  And because the groups are changed with every group project, they know whomever else is in the group, it is a temporary grouping.

The routine went like this:

  • Class, in just a minute I’m going to put you into groups to ___ (whatever the task is going to be).
  • You will need to have a pencil, your notebook, your textbook. While you are getting those out, I am going to shuffle the cards.  (I’d quickly separate out the colors of cards and deal the cards out.)
  • Are you ready? Okay, do NOT move until I’ve said all the names.  When you hear which group you are in, hold up that number of fingers to you don’t forget.
  • Group one is . . . . and you will sit here. Group two is . . . and you will sit here.  (Etc.)
  • Do you know what group you are in?   You may go to your group’s area now.

I found it was useful to use some humor when looking at who wound up in which group.  For example, I had two young men in a seventh grade science class who had been best friends since they were born.  They had a bit of a problem being in a group together because they would talk about off topic subjects.  So if their names came up in the same group, I’d dramatically act like that was the worst thing ever and raise my eyebrow at one or the other.  They’d laugh and I’d continue with the melodrama and say something like, “Well, if you are sure you can manage to work together . . . “  They’d laugh some more and we’d move on.

I would usually deal out the cards for the group very quickly, and then scoop them up and reshuffle them quickly as well.  That was so the students didn’t get into the habit of looking at the names I’d dealt.  Why?  Well, besides the fact that I wanted the students to listen the first time, I have a little confession:  I didn’t always tell the truth about whose name was in which group.  If two students were likely to attempt to kill each other if they were in the same group, I’d quickly change one of the names out of that group and into another.  The students were none the wiser.  I’d show them the names just often enough that they thought I was always being honest.

Okay, I have a second confession:  I wasn’t always honest about whose name I called when asking questions either.  But I was pretty careful about this.  I only skipped over students if I thought someone was having a very, very bad day.  I don’t mean like they had an argument with a friend kind of bad day.  I mean the “he didn’t get any sleep last night because his parents were too drunk and too loud” kind of day.

I’ve used Roe’s Card Trick with elementary, middle, high school, college, and teachers.  Out of the four groups, the one group that had the most difficulty with it was the college students.  They would often pause too long before trying to answer, or would ask me to repeat the question.  The latter was often because they had gotten into the habit of not paying attention to questions.  I think this is because college students have already had 13 years of K-12 education where students were called on by raising hands, and because college students are often multi-tasking during class.  (I can’t tell you the number of times I observed students writing papers for another class or messaging others on their laptops.)

What this illustrates is that if you introduce your own “Card Trick” to use with your class after the school year has begun, you will need to allow students a little bit of time to practice the procedure before it becomes an established routine.

If you want to make absolutely sure that you are not subconsciously directing only certain kinds of questions to certain kinds of students, and that you are being completely fair in creating groups, use the Card Trick.  It honestly works great!


The plan for next week is to look at my godmother’s statement of “Never ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to”.


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Kathryn Roe has been an educator for 39 years. She began teaching in a juvenile corrections facility (no, she was not an inmate!). She has taught in public and private schools, special education and regular education, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She moved from the classroom into administration where she was a principal and a curriculum director. She taught pre-service teachers at the university level for the past 13 years. Classroom management is her passion!

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