8 Ways Silence Can Improve Student Responses

8 Different Ways Wait-Time Can Be Used in the Classroom

Those seconds of silence or that pause after a question is posed in class may feel awkward. Silence is often mistaken for not having an answer. However, Robert J. Stahl, a professor in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, at Arizona State University, Tempe, researched silence as instructional tool that a teacher should use in the classroom.

His published research "Eight Categories of Periods of Silence" (1990) was built on the use of "wait-time" as a strategy, a technique first suggested by Mary Budd Rowe (1972).  

Rowe had found that if a teacher waited three (3) seconds after posing a question the results were significantly better results than the rapid-fire questioning, often one every 1.9 seconds, that is standard in classrooms. In her study, Rowe noted:

"...After at least 3 seconds, the length of student responses increased; failures to respond decreased; the number of questions asked by students increased." 

Time, however, was not the only factor in improving questioning techniques. Stahl noted that the quality of questions must also improve since imprecise questions increase the confusion, frustration, or no response at all regardless of the time provided. 

Stahl's organization of the eight (8) categories of periods of silence can help teachers recognize when and where "wait-time" silence can be effectively used as "think-time". According to Stahl,


"The teacher's job is to manage and guide what occurs prior to and immediately following each period of silence so that the [cognitive] processing that needs to occur is completed."
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Post-Teacher Question Wait-Time

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Stahl found that the typical teacher pauses, on the average, between 0.7 and 1.4 seconds after his/her questions before continuing to talk or permitting a student to respond. He suggests that post-teacher question wait-time "requires at least 3 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a teacher's clear, well-structured question, so that students have sufficient uninterrupted time to first consider and then respond." 

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Within-Student's Response Pause-Time

In the within-student's response pause-time scenario, Stahl noted that a student may pause or hesitate during a previously started response or explanation. The teacher should allow the student up to or more than three (3) seconds of uninterrupted silence so that the student may continue his or her answer.  Here, no one except the student making the initial statement can interrupt this period of silence. Stahl noted that students often follow these periods of silence by volunteering, without teacher prompts, the information that is usually sought by the teacher. 

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Post-Student's Response Wait-Time

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 This scenario of the post-student's response wait-time is three (3) or more seconds of uninterrupted silence that occurs after a student has completed a response and while other students are considering volunteering their reactions, comments, or answers. This period allows other students time to think about what has been said and to decide whether they want to say something of their own. Stahl suggested that academic discussions must include time  to consider one another's responses so that students can have dialogue among themselves.

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Student Pause-Time

Student pause-time occurs when students pause or hesitate during a self-initiated question, comment, or statement for 3 or more seconds. This pause of uninterrupted silence happens before finishing their self-initiated statements. By definition, no one except the student making the initial statement can interrupt this period of silence. 

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Teacher Pause-Time

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Teacher pause-time  is three (3) or additional uninterrupted silent pauses that teachers deliberately take to consider what just took place, what the present situation is, and what their next statements or behaviors could and should be. Stahl saw this as an opportunity for reflective thought  for the teacher--and eventually students--after a student has asked a question that requires more than an immediate, short recall answer. 

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Within-Teacher Presentation Pause-Time

Within-teacher presentation pause-time occurs during lecture presentations when a teachers deliberately stops the flow of information and gives students 3 or more seconds of uninterrupted silence to process the just-presented information. 

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Student Task-Completion Work-Time

Student task-completion work-time occurs either when a period of 3-5 seconds or up to 2 or more minutes of uninterrupted silence is provided for students be on task with something that demands their undivided attention. This form of uninterrupted silence should be appropriate to the length of time students need to complete a task. 

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Impact Pause-Time

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Impact pause-time occurs as a dramatic way to focus attention. Impact pause-time may continue for less than 3 seconds or far longer periods, up through several minutes, depending upon the time needed for thinking. 

Conclusions on 8 Periods of Silence

Stahl categorized eight ways silence or "wait-time" can be used in the classroom in order to improve thinking. His research demonstrated that silence-even for 3 seconds- can be a powerful instructional tool. Learning how to provide time for students to frame their own questions or to finish their previously started answers can help a teacher build questioning capacity.