I’ve spoken with hundreds of teachers about questioning and they always bring up wait time as being a challenge.
We know it’s important. It involves doing literally nothing. So, why is wait time difficult?
Because it’s super awkward to sit in silence while no one answers your question. As a teacher, I’d be thinking:
- Didn’t they understand my question?
- Was anyone listening?
- Are they all watching to see what I’ll do?
- What do I do with my hands?
- Am I an awful teacher?
It’s so darn tempting to end that awkwardness by:
- blurting out an answer to your own question
- giving little hints
- or asking the question again – and again and again…
Why Don’t Students Answer Immediately?
If I think about this from my students’ perspective, it’s pretty obvious why we have some silence after I ask a question. While they’re sitting silently, they’re very busy in their brains trying to come up with an answer!
And the bigger – and better – the question, the longer the wait-time should be.
I’ve actually heard folks use the term “Think Time” rather than “Wait Time” to emphasize what’s really going on. Sure, I may be merely waiting, but my students are thinking!
Wait Time Reality
So, how long do you wait after a question? It’s super easy to measure. Record a lesson and listen back. One study found the following:
In her investigations, Rowe found the mean wait time to be one second… If the student did not respond in one second, the teacher either repeated or rephrased the question, asked another question, or called on another student
Students have one second to process a question, think about it, formulate a response, work up the gumption, and then verbalize it!? There’s no way you can come up with a good answer in that time.
Recommended Wait Time
But get this: studies find positive results if we increase wait time 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 three alligators 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 waiting also 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.
I am careful in workshops to give 3-5 seconds. I do this by:
- literally counting in my head
- taking a drink of water
- walking around a bit
- keeping the microphone at my side
- looking around the room at everyone
Other teachers have told me they have similar techniques to keep themselves from speaking during this wait-time.
But Wait… There’s EVEN MORE
What we’re talking about is called Wait Time I – the time you wait between the question and the first answer. But there’s also Wait Time II. This is 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 this: thank a student for their answer, 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.
You’ll find that more hands start popping up. New kids answer. You get different answers.
I am always amazed at how well this works, even in workshops with adults. When I count down from five, I so often get another answer right at that fifth second. People just need a little time to work up their response.
Seriously, this works and it’s such a simple change.
Hopefully obvious, though: you need to ask interesting, higher-order questions in order to get multiple, thoughtful responses. No matter how long you wait, “What’s the fourth planet from the sun?” will only get you one answer.
Combining Wait Time With Gentle Prompts
Now, if you wait three to five seconds and seem to have run out of student responses, don’t move on yet! You can assume that there are some kids with more ideas, but they’re teetering on the edge of sharing. They’re nervous. They’re afraid their answer isn’t quite right.
You can gently push them over that edge by saying things like:
- Anyone have an idea they think is kinda right?
- Any ideas that you think might be a little weird?
- Anyone have an idea that you think only you came up with?
- Anyone right on the edge of sharing? I’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…
Slow Down by Writing Down
One of the many tips I learned from my mentor, Nanci Cole, is to capture all student responses on chart paper, a whiteboard, or into a Google Doc. It serves many great purposes. You keep these ideas to play with later. You validate everyone’s responses – they’re so important, we’re writing them down!
But, best of all, writing down responses naturally adds wait time. You have to pause to write each idea down. It opens up space for kids to think to clarify and to add to each others’ thinking.
Making A Change? Let Kids Know.
We’ve talked a lot about changing your behavior. When we do this, I always think it’s a good idea to tell your class what you’re up to. Otherwise you know they’re going to notice something has changed and wonder what the heck’s going on: Why is Mr. Byrd staring and smiling at us so much today?
Class, I’ve noticed that I don’t always give you enough time to think after I’ve asked a question. Sorry about that. I’m trying to wait three seconds or so 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.
The longer I taught, the more value I found in letting my students know why I was changing my behavior. I also like to think that it made them realize that I was always working to get better at my job.
Differentiation information in your inbox.
I'll send you one or two emails a month to help you better understand and differentiate for gifted students. Get free resources now!