This is a continuation of my series on questioning.
I was in Ohio speaking with teachers about questioning, and both groups I worked with quickly identified wait time as a major problem in classroom questioning. Teachers simply don’t wait long enough after asking a question.
Why Don’t We Wait?
Why is wait-time difficult? Because it’s super awkward to sit in silence while no one answers your question. A teacher might be thinking:
- Didn’t they understand?
- Was anyone listening?
- Are they all watching to see what I’ll do?
And it’s so easy to end that awkwardness by blurting out your own answer, giving hints, or otherwise filling the space.
But in students’ minds, they’re simply trying to come up with an answer. And the bigger (and better!) the question, the longer the wait-time should be.
So how long do teachers typically wait after asking a question? From an article by Kathleen Cotton:
The average wait-time teachers allow after posing a question is one second or less.
We’re giving students one second to process a question, think about it, formulate a response, and then verbalize it!? There’s no way you can come up with a good answer in that time.
But get this: studies find positive results if wait time increases to just three seconds:
To attain these benefits, teachers were urged to “wait” in silence for 3 or more seconds after their questions, and after students completed their responses. From Robert Stahl
Three seconds is an easy starting point to increase student responses. Just mentally count to three after you ask a question and you can expect these positive benefits:
- responses grow longer
- responses are more correct
- more students respond
- you’ll get a wider variety of responses
- you ask fewer (but better) questions
For me, I find that intentionally waiting calms me down. I breathe better. I relax a bit.
But beware, three seconds feels a lot longer than it sounds, especially when your classroom is silent and you’re waiting for a response.
But Wait… There’s More
What we’re talking about is called Wait Time I – the time you wait between the question and the answer. But there’s also Wait Time II – the time you wait after a student speaks before moving on.
Increasing Wait Time II naturally opens the floor for more answers from more students.
Try thanking a student for their answer (trying to avoid my weird tick of always rewording), ask for more responses, and then silently and slowly count to three. And it helps to gently smile, so your class doesn’t think you’re angry.
Combining Wait Time With Powerful Prompts
If you wait three to five seconds, but run out of student responses, you can assume that there are at least a couple kids with ideas, but they’re teetering on the edge of sharing. You can gently push them over that edge by saying:
- Anyone have an idea they think is kinda right?
- Any ideas that you think might be a little weird?
- Anyone on the edge of sharing? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Here’s a sample conversation:
- T: What do you think made George Washington a great president? (counts slowly to three)
- S1: Well… he, like, did everything first
- T: Thanks S1 (smiles). Other ideas? You can just shout ’em out. (counts slowly to three)
- S2: He chose to step down instead of ruling until he died.
- T: Thank you S2 (smiles). What else? (counts to three)
- T: Anyone have an idea they’re not quite sure of? (counts to three)
- S3: Wasn’t he, um, also a general during the Revolutionary War?
- T: Yes, thank you S3…
Writing Down Responses
I love capturing student responses on chart paper, a white board, or into a Google Doc. It serves three great purposes:
- You keep these ideas to play with later.
- You validate everyone’s responses – they’re so important, we’re writing them down!
- They naturally add wait time. You have to pause to write down each idea.
The Bigger The Question, The Longer The Wait
Of course, three seconds is a starting point. Five seconds might work even better in certain situations. If you’re asking higher level questions like evaluative and divergent, that wait time will need to grow.
And, when purposefully altering your classroom behavior, I always think it’s a good idea to tell your class up front. Otherwise you know they’re going to notice and wonder what the heck’s going on – Why is Mr. Byrd just staring and smiling at us today?
Guys, I’ve noticed that I don’t always give you enough time to think after I’ve asked a question. I’m trying to wait three to five seconds before I say anything from now on. I think this will make our class better. I’d love your help. If you notice that I’m moving on too quickly, please let me know.
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