Communicating High Expectations to Students; A Series of Practical Techniques (Part I)

In education, we have all heard in various PD sessions how important it is to develop relationships and have high expectations for students.  As many things go in education, this concept is much easier said than done.  I want to take some time and describe (briefly) some practical adjustments we can make in the classroom that will help us communicate this important message to kids.  I want to begin by offering sharing with 3 important messages I am across in my reading that we should try to send to kids through our words, actions, and instructional decisions.

  • This is important.
  • You can do it.
  • I will not give up on you.

If your students believe these three messages, the chances of them working for you are much greater.  Also, learning is much more dependent on effort than it is on innate ability, so by making it a priority to communicate high expectations, we can increase the effort a student is willing to give, thus increasing their capacity to learn.  Everything we do in the classroom can communicate a message to students whether they are intentional or not. For students, perception is reality.  Our goal should be to ensure we are sending students messages that will best lead to learning.

Initially, I intended to include five techniques in this post, but as I began writing I realized each technique would need more attention to be helpful.  Instead I will roll out several different techniques as part of a series of posts. So stay tuned for more techniques!


1. Calling On Students: “No hands” (Cold Call).

A frequent practice in the classroom is to ask students questions. But how often do we consider the messages we can communicate to students through our questioning techniques.  If we only answer questions from those students who have their hands up, what message are we sending to the rest of the class? Although unintentional, we may send the message that we only want to hear from kids who are prepared and willing to share.

What ?

Allow hand raising for only asking questions rather than answers. Avoid allowing only volunteers to answer questions. This creates a culture in class where expectation is that everyone thinks of the answer to every question you ask by instructing students to not raise their hands or shout out, but to think of the answer.  The teacher than calls on any student they want (rather than a student who volunteers the answer). Doug Lemov names the technique “Cold Calling” and discusses how this technique can transform a classroom simply because for every question that is asked out loud every student knows they might at any second be held accountable for an answer.

Looks like: “What is the radius of the circle?”  (no hands in the air) Pause “John.”

Not “Who can tell me the radius of this circle?”


  • This will help us get into habit of asking questions of “low-expectancy” students.
  • Communicates to students that you believe everyone has the capacity to answer the questions.
  • Students get the message that their input is important.
  • Using “Cold Call” can be used as a “check for understanding” by asking every student (not just volunteers) the data you get back will be much more accurate.
  • Eliminates the silence after a “who can tell me..?” question. The silence after a “Cold Call” question is intentional and comes with the expectation that everyone is thinking.
  • Eliminates pleading (or worse threatening) for participation “remember you get a grade for participation…”
  • “Cold Call” has some built in wait time which results in longer and more thoughtful answers.
  • No students are “off the hook”- ever.


There are several variations of this technique where students are free to raise there hands, but the teacher still calls on anyone they want.  Question randomizers like, popsicle sticks, index cards, or smart board tools can also work, but we must make sure after a stick is pulled it is added back to cup – so students don’t feel they are “off the hook” for the rest of class.

Tips for implementation:

  • Be explicit about what “Cold Call” is and why you are doing it.\
  • Make it a habit; students need to understand that being ready to participate and answer questions is just how things work.
  • “Cold Call” everyone, but not in a predictable pattern.
  • Never use “Cold Calling” as a punishment or a “Gotcha!” It should be viewed as a students opportunity to demonstrate learning.
  • Normalize mistakes and give students tips what to do when they don’t Know an answer.
  • Plan questions and answers ahead of time (especially when cold calling)
  • Plan to Cold Call high, middle, and low students when trying to determine mastery.
  • “Cold Call” a few times in a row. This will help students from feeling singled out.
  • Let students know prior to learning content that you will be “Cold Calling.”
  • Practice! It is a small change, but it will be very different for you and your students.

As always my goal is to start dialogues of effective instructional practices.  Please include any comments you have on this topic and/or email me at


9 thoughts on “Communicating High Expectations to Students; A Series of Practical Techniques (Part I)

    • That’s a great question!

      Initially, I was thinking different questions in batches. For Example, “Who was Romeo in love with in the beginning of the the play?” John. “What happened at the party that may have changed this?” Jane. and so forth. By asking Cold Calling multiple times in a row, one student doesn’t feel “picked on” or singled out, and it helps normalize the process. Also asking more questions of students puts more of the cognitive burden on students.

      But your question also got me to thinking that there may be value in asking the same question to different kids consecutively. Especially if it is a more open ended question that requires explanation and evidence. “What do we learn about Romeo, based on his actions at the party?” John. “What do you think, Jane?”

      Sorry the ELA example Chad. I think this could apply to Math as well when asking questions about process. “How did you come up with that?” seems like a question everyone should be ready for. The key, for me, is to be sincere when asking. Meaning you are asking a question that you want the answer to – not asking a question to prove a point or worse to prove that they were not paying attention. I think I am straying off topic =) let me know your thoughts!

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