Wait Time and Education

Waiting 3-5 seconds for students to respond to a question in class will increase the quality and length of student responses.

 

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Wait time, in educational terms, is the time that a teacher waits before calling on a student in class or for an individual student to respond. For example, teacher presenting a lesson on presidential terms of office, may ask the question, "How many years can a president serve as president?"

The amount of time that a teacher gives students to think of the answer and raise their hands is called wait-time, and research published over forty years ago is still used to show that wait-time is a critical instructional tool.

The term was first coined by Mary Budd Rowe in her research paper, Wait-time and Rewards as Instructional Variables, Their Influence in Language, Logic, and Fate Control (1972). She noted that on average, teachers paused only 1.5 seconds after asking a question; some wait only a tenth of a second. When that time was extended to three seconds, there were positive changes to students' and teachers' behaviors and attitudes. She explained that wait-time gave students a chance to take risks.

"Exploration and inquiry require students to put together ideas in new ways, to try out new thoughts, to take risks. For that they not only need time but they need a sense of being safe" (4).

Her report detailed several of the changes that came about when students were provided wait-time:

  • The length and correctness of student responses increased.
  • The number of no answers or "I don't know" responses by students decreased.
  • The number of students who volunteered answers increased greatly increased.
  • Academic achievement test scores tended to increase.

Wait Time is Think Time

Rowe's study had focused on elementary science teacher using data recorded over five years. She had noted a change in teacher characteristics, flexibility in their own responses, when they purposefully allowed wait-time of three to five seconds, or even longer. In addition, the variety of questions asked in class became varied. Rowe concluded that wait-time influenced teacher expectations, and their rating of students they may have considered "slow" changed. She suggested that more work should be done "concerning direct training of students to take time both to frame replies and to hear other students."

In the 1990s, Robert Stahl from Arizona State University took up Rowe's suggestion and followed up on her research. His study Using "Think-time" Behaviors to Promote Students' Information Processing, Learning, and On-task Participation: An Instructional Model explained that wait-time was more than a simple pause in instruction. He determined that the three seconds of wait time of uninterrupted silence offered in questioning and answering was an opportunity for intellectual exercise. He found that during this uninterrupted silence, "both the teacher and all students can both complete appropriate information processing tasks, feelings, oral responses, and actions." He explained that "wait-time" should be renamed as "think-time" because,

"Think-time names the primary academic purpose and activity of this period of silence--to allow students and the teacher to complete on-task thinking" (8).

Stahl also determined that there were eight categories of uninterrupted periods of silence that comprised wait-time. These categories described the wait-time immediately following a teacher's question to a dramatic pause a teacher may use to emphasize an important idea or concept.

Practicing Wait-time in the Classroom

Despite the undisputed research, wait-time is a teaching tool that is often not practiced in the classroom. One reason may be that teachers are uncomfortable with silence after asking a question. This pause may not feel natural to wait to call on students. Taking three to five seconds, however, before calling on a student is not a lot of time. For teachers who may feel pressured to "cover" content or want to "get through" a unit, that uninterrupted silence can feel unnaturally long, especially if that pause is not a classroom norm.

Another reason that teachers may feel uncomfortable with uninterrupted silence could be a lack of practice. More veteran teachers may already set their own pace for instruction which would need to be adjusted, while teachers entering the profession may not have had the opportunity to try wait-time in a classroom environment. Implementing an effective wait-time of three to five seconds is purposeful and takes practice.

To better practice wait-time, some teachers implement a policy of only selecting students who raise a hand. This can be hard to enforce, especially if other teachers in the school are not requiring students to raise their hands. If a teacher is consistent and reinforces the importance of hand-raising in response to a question, students will eventually learn. Of course, teachers should realize that it is much harder to make students raise their hands if they have not required to do so from the first day of school. Other teachers may use a student lists or popsicle sticks or cards with student names to ensure that every student is called upon or that one student does not dominate the responses.

Teachers also need to be aware of student expectations when implementing wait time. Students who are in competitive, upper-level courses and who may be used to quick-fire questions and answers might not initially find a benefit from wait time. In these cases, teachers would have to use their expertise and varying the amounts of time before calling on students to see if it does make a difference to either the number of students involved or the quality of the answers. Like any other instructional strategy, a teacher may need to play with wait-time to see what works best for students.

While wait-time may be an uncomfortable strategy for teachers and students at first, it does get easier with practice. Teachers will notice a better quality and/or an increase in the length of responses as students to have the time to think of their answer before raising their hands. Finally, student-to-student interactions may increase as students become better able to formulate their answers. That pause of a few seconds called wait-time or think-time can make a dramatic improvement in learning.