Random-name-generation software–originally designed to make sure teachers call on girls as frequently as boys–appears to have additional benefits. A University of Florida (UF) researcher has discovered the technology also helps students stay focused and engaged in activities that tend to foster academic achievement.

When teachers use a handheld computer that randomly selects which student to call on, even shy or reluctant pupils will be included in class discussions–and students pay more attention as a result, the researcher found.

Paige Allison, a high school math teacher and educational anthropologist student at UF, conducted the research as part of her dissertation. She found that high school students reported they were more engaged in activities that lead to school success when their teachers used the random name-generation technology.

“The interview data from the teachers and students show 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.

She said she became interested in doing the study after listening to a radio report describing how math teachers call on boys more than girls.

“I came to work and I started paying attention and realized that I, too, was calling on boys more than girls,” Allison said. So, she sought a solution that would eliminate any chance of bias on the part of instructors.

For her research, Allison used an inexpensive handheld computer with Microsoft Office installed on it to generate the names of students randomly, at the touch of a button. A computer programmer wrote a program for her in Excel that would generate the names.

“The idea of this was to give everyone the same opportunity and not to treat anybody differently,” she said. In the course of her research, she found that “not only were students engaging in behaviors that contribute to success, but teachers found they were more patient [and] engaged in more probing activities.”

Her research is part of a larger study on the culture of the mathematics classroom, which she continues to conduct.

To test the effectiveness of a random name-generation system, Allison compared participation rates of students in 15 math classes where the device was used with the participation rates of students in 11 math classes where it was not used.

Contrary to expectations, her research found no significant difference in participation rates between classes that used the new experimental technique and those where teachers called on students according to their own methods. This suggests teachers at the school in question did not show bias in calling on one gender or ethnic group more than another, she said.

Still, the random name generator 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 produce 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.” After a student’s name comes up on the name generator, it is thrown back into the mix and isn’t eliminated from the list.

To make the computerized name-generating system less threatening, students were allowed to take a free “pass” without penalty if they did not know the answer or did not wish to respond.

“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,” Allison 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.”

Allison said one reason girls might receive less attention in math class is that teachers might find themselves calling on boys, who tend to be more assertive in class.

“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 might call on students as a way to keep them on task or prevent 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 research on this subject, I noticed that I called on boys more than girls as a kind of behavior control management device.”

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 up in class, especially high school students because this is a shy age,” he said.


University of Florida

University of Maryland