A Rite of Passage or a Form of Torture?
Students have been terrified of and traumatized by cold calling ever since Harvard Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell invented the case method more than a century ago. The Socratic method is the ultimate form of active learning. The professor has that one student’s complete attention, and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief, grateful that today is not their day.
We’ve all been there. During the lecture, your mind wanders, and then suddenly, you hear your name. The prof has just cold-called you. Did you even hear the question? Did you understand it? Is it about the one case you didn’t get to in the reading? The one case you didn’t understand?
Your blood pressure starts to spike, and all you want to do is run screaming from the room. Welcome to the fight/flight/freeze response.
There is some method behind this madness. One of the reasons law professors cold call law students is that when a judge asks you a difficult question in court, you can maintain your composure and think on your feet.
Some students respond by giving ridiculous answers or suggesting improbable hypotheticals. This may work in class, but you shouldn’t ever make things up before a judge. If you don’t know the answer to a judge’s question, the correct response is, “I don’t know the answer to that question, your honor, but I will research it and have a memo on your desk by 5 p.m. tomorrow. Will that be acceptable?”
How Can Mindfulness Help?
Because running screaming from the room is not an option, here’s something you can try instead.
A traditional mindfulness response to a stressful situation is stopping and taking three deep breaths. But that won’t work here. You don’t have time to take three deep breaths because the professor will think you aren’t going to answer. You need something fast, simple, and easy to remember.
But what can you do in just a few seconds to transition out of fight or flight? What will re-engage your executive function and give your brain a chance to come up with a coherent response?
Mindfulness for Cold Calling
STEP 1: Plant your feet firmly on the floor
STEP 2: Sit up straight
STEP 3: Take one deep breath
STEP 4: Now restate the question
The first three responses can happen at almost the same time; plant your feet, and as you plant your feet, sit up straight, and as you sit up, take just one deep breath.
Step 1: Planting your feet is a form of grounding. Establishing a connection to the ground connects your body to the Earth and gives you strength.
Step 2: Sitting up straight helps your blood flow and prepares your lungs to breathe. As a lecture continues, many people start to slouch back into their seats or rest their chins on their hands. Sitting up straight will prepare your lungs to take a really deep breath while feeling your connection to the Earth.
Step 3: One deep breath sends extra oxygen to your brain. Breath is one of the foundations of mindfulness as an anchor for focus. One deep breath reminds you to be fully present in the moment.
Step 4: Restating a question is a form of active listening. It validates the person asking the question and shows them that you understood. For example, say, “If I heard you correctly, Professor X, what you are asking is . . . .”
This does assume that you actually heard the question. If you completely missed hearing the question, you will need to ask the professor to repeat it.
During the pandemic, some professors started designating a group of students to be “on deck.” They posted a list of people they might call on each day, so their students were on notice to be extra well-prepared. Hopefully, this practice continues, as it makes cold calling a little less stressful.
Consider starting a daily mindfulness practice, and these four steps will come more naturally. While nothing can completely dispel the terror that cold calling initiates, having a specific plan can help.