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Why longer Wait Times might transform students' learning

Why longer Wait Times might transform students’ learning

5 min read
  • The science of learning

When teaching, every second counts. But what if having a few extra seconds of silence meant that your students were more engaged and participated more often? Well, that is exactly what research suggests, with students showing significant improvements with longer wait times.

But what exactly is meant by “wait times”? Let’s take a closer look on what it is, how it applies to you, and some helpful strategies you can implement into the classroom.

What are Wait Times in education?

Within an education setting, wait time is the time between a teacher asking a question and calling out to get a response from a student. Research suggest that on average, this takes between 0.7 and 1.4 seconds – about the speed of a heartbeat at average resting rate. However, in a review, researchers found that increasing this time to 3 seconds improved the level and quality of students’ participation.

But why do wait times matter? We know that retrieval practice, which is the act of generating an answer to a question, helps improve memory – well, if we rush the amount of time students have to retrieve that information, we effectively shorten this learning opportunity. This means that those who may need it the most (i.e. those who take longer to come up with an answer) would be most disadvantaged by rushed wait times.

To show you just how fast the average classroom wait time is, we’ve compared it to other really fast things – can you expect your students to consistently come up with an answer quicker than the fastest ever F1 pit stop?

Teacher wait times vs other fast things

What does the research say?

Within the review, the researchers manipulated the wait time within a classroom setting and observed the effect it had for the students and teachers. They found that:

  • Students voluntarily participated three to seven times more often, with those who were previously seen as “poor contributors” participating twice as much.
  • The students had more enriching discussions, with their arguments being backed up by evidence.
  • Their confidence and motivation improved, with some saying that it was the first time they felt someone truly cared about what they thought.
  • The students’ behaviour improved, being less restless and more attentive.
  • As a group, students were more cohesive and worked closer together, benefiting more from group work.

What this means for a classroom teacher

Students’ participation and academic performance improves

In the review, researchers found that using this technique allows students to contribute more to the lesson, as students 30% less likely to answer a question with “no” or “I don’t know” when having a longer wait time.

Their academic performance may also improve, with another study finding significant improvement in the students’ language and vocabulary skills.

Shift in teaching style

You might also notice a positive change in your teaching style. Researchers in the review found that using longer wait times allowed greater flexibility in teachers’ responses as well as a greater continuity in the development of ideas.

Your expectations for your students may also change. Researchers found that as students who were previously less involved became more engaged with the class, their teacher’s expectations for them changed. As teachers’ expectations has a significant impact on students’ performance, having higher expectations can motivate students further and help them perform to their greatest potential.

Benefits students with SEND

Having longer wait times was found to benefit all students. In this study, researchers found that having a 5-second wait time gave students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) the time to fundamentally process the question being asked.

3 ways to apply this in the classroom

So how can you apply these findings to the classroom? Here are 3 tips to help you have longer waiting time when teaching:

1. Count in your head

To ensure you have a 3-second wait time, count the seconds in your head before picking out a student to answer and after a student finishes answering the question.

2. Explain the benefits

Describing the benefits of having a longer wait time to students can mean that they are less frustrated or surprised by this longer pause. You can also encourage them to take 3 seconds before answering in order to elaborate on their thoughts.

3. Use an “I pass” option selectively

The researchers have found that students in the three-second classrooms who used this option were 70% more likely to come back to a discussion when compared to having a wait time of 1 second. However, this should come with a warning. All too often, “I don’t know” or “I pass” can become a way of not having to think too hard about the question. If this is the case, this strategy may signal that the students do not have to put in too much effort in your classroom.

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A word of warning

The researchers in this particular experimented investigated the impact of extending the wait time times to 3 seconds. This is not to say this is a “perfect” or “optimal” amount. No such neat number exists – it depend on the context and your cohort. What they are suggesting is that at the threshold of 3 seconds, they do see a higher quality of answers.

One of the objections some have to extending wait times is that they do not want to demotivate those who can get the answer quickly. And this is a fair and legitimate concern. However, by extending it for just a few seconds, chances are it doesn’t demotivate the quickest that much, whilst also allowing us to extend the net of students we want to capture.

Final thoughts

Currently, the average wait time in the classroom hovers around 1 second. However, this is often too short for students to come up with an answer. As research suggests, extending your wait time to just 3 seconds can allow students to participate more and improve their academic performance.

A simple way to implement this into the classroom is by counting 3 seconds in your head before picking a student to answer the question and after the student responds to the question. Explaining the benefits to students can also help them implement this technique.

Lastly, don’t give up! It may be hard to get the hang of at first, but after explaining the benefits to your students, it will become much easier to implement it into the classroom.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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