Random Student Selection: Importance and Methods

When you teach class, how do you select students for giving answers? Do you ask a question and then move on when the smartest student in the class shouts the answer? Do you ask for volunteers, then just say the answer yourself when no one replies? Well, in this blog post, we’ll give you a few pointers for how—and why—to select students to answer your questions. 

The importance of student selection 

One problem with the methods above is that they don’t target the students who need the most help. This can be a big issue. When you simply ask a question in class and continue when several students shout the answer, or when the “smart” students in class volunteer, there are likely some students who don’t understand. It’s important, then, that you have methods for choosing not only the most proficient or the most confident, but also the ones you don’t always hear from. 

Selection methods 

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Now that you realize the importance of selecting students, how do you do it? First of all, note that randomness is important. If you always choose the students that struggle with your questions, those students might feel embarrassed, while the other students will feel ignored or cheated out of the opportunity to participate. By randomly selecting students, you can insure everyone has a chance to participate, and no one feels discriminated against.  

Now don’t worry. You don’t need any fancy pieces of software, or a spinning dartboard to choose students … although, if you want, you can find plenty of random number generation websites online, and sometimes a fun prop can add a bit of flavor to a class. In my experience, an easy way is to have a student choose a number between one and 10, or to use the day’s date, to arrive at a “number of the day.” Then count that number of students, and the final one will be the one who answers your question. While this isn’t truly random, it’s a quick way of selecting “volunteers” free from bias. Of course, if you use this method, attentive students will be able to predict the next student to be selected, but that’s fine, since it allows them to prepare accordingly. 

Also, it should be pointed out that random selection of students isn’t always good. It’s important to, at times, allow vocal and confident students to volunteer, and that does mean they will end up participating a bit more than other students. This is fine. It means they’re enjoying the class and this should be encouraged … but you shouldn’t forget about the other students who might need some extra help.  

One method of student selection that isn’t particularly helpful is having students choose the next student to answer. While this might sometimes add some fun to class (students will feel like the KING–or queen–OF THE CLASSROOM!!!)  it also results in only a small group of friends participating in class … or, worse yet, gives students the ability to bully other students by selecting ones they know will feel ashamed. Use this strategy sparingly.  

Special strategies for low-level students 

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Sometimes there are students who, when selected to give an answer in class, take a long time. This can make some teachers feel awkward or feel like it’s slowing the class down. There are several ways around this problem, though. 

The first solution is to not be embarased when this happens. Encourage the student to take his or time and let it be known that you’re comfortable with it. If you’re comfortable, they’ll be comfortable, and it lets students know that they don’t have to be pressured to come up with an answer instantly.  

Another way to deal with slower-processing students is to give them time to prepare in advance. Sometimes, I’ll choose two students at a time, with the first one giving the answer, and the other student being “on deck”—that is, preparing to answer the next question. This gives that student time to think and prepare. Then, once it’s that student’s turn, another student is put on deck. This way, every student will have a chance to prepare their answers a little ahead of time.  

In the event you’ve done all of the above strategies, and your student still has a hard time answering, you can make the question easier by giving them an easier version of the task. For example, if their task is to read a paragraph aloud from a book, you can simplify it by having them read one or two sentences or, if that happens to be too much, a single word. Having students choose one of two answers can also help. For example, if the question is “What animal is this?” and the student hesitates, you can prompt him or her by asking, “Is it a bird or a cat?” 

And if none of the above startegies work? Well, welcome to the world of teaching, where sometimes you can do everything right, and some things still won’t work. But again, the most important part is that you appear comfortable with the situation … even if you’re sweating like an ice cream bar on a hot summer day. 

Or, you can just close your laptop, put on a Hawaiian shirt, tell everyone you’re quitting, then book the next available flight to Bali. 

In all seriousness, though, teachers should resist the temptation to simply give up on certain students. Participating in class is important preparation for students’ lives beyond school. Life’s responsibilites don’t make exceptions, so you shouldn’t either. On the other hand, it’s also important for them to know that, while they might not be the best in class, there’s still a place for them, and they can still contribute in their own way.  


The idea of making sure all students participate, even those of lower proficiency, can sometimes be easy to ignore. But what good is it to anyone if a student manages to “slip under the radar” for the majority of his or her education, then graduates without knowing the basic information needed for success? So don’t forget to take time now and then to slow things down and call on specific students to make sure everybody has the opportunity to learn.

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