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Make the best of Wait Times in your classroom

Make the best of Wait Times in your classroom

4 min read
  • The science of learning

The time taken between a question and a response is crucial to learning. This ‘wait time’ may seem insignificant, but there has been a lot of research surrounding its positive outcomes. We’ve been reading the research and found a way that teachers can make the best out of these few seconds to help students achieve their learning goals

So, wait time: what is it? And how does it affect learning?

What is wait time?

Wait time is the pauses between different speakers. In a classroom setting, it may also be referred to as ‘thinking time’. For example, when you ask “How did you find yesterday’s homework?”, students will take a few seconds to think of a response in silence, and then tell you if they enjoyed it, found it difficult, etc. 

Evidence suggests that in a conversation with a friend or family member, the wait time is often less than a second in length. When a pause is longer than this, it can often be interpreted as a lack of understanding at the question or comment, or as a sign of trouble. This is typically resolved by repeating a question or rephrasing it and adding additional information. 

The rules of conversation are unspoken yet understood by most. When you’re talking to someone, it is implied that whilst one is speaking, the other one listens and then responds. Between friends it may be normal to interrupt each other or talk over each other whilst trying to get your point across. However, this is not the same for classrooms. 

Wait time in the classroom

In a classroom, the interaction is similar yet distinct when it comes to the structure of turn-taking. These classroom rules are highlighted by teachers when they remind students not to talk whilst they’re teaching, or whilst another student is talking. The structure of turn-taking in classrooms means that there is already the opportunity to prolong the wait time.

For example, when a teacher asks a question to the class, there are a few extra seconds for students to formulate their response whilst the teachers decides who to call upon. The nominated student then has ample time to make their point, knowing that no other student will disrupt them. The nature of classroom conversations makes it easier for students and teachers to manipulate the lengths of their pauses in order to take advantage of some of the reported benefits of extending wait time. 

Most teachers leave an average of less than one second of wait time after asking a question. If the student does not respond during this time, teachers often repeat the question, rephrase it, or give their own answer.

However, evidence suggests that extending this wait time to at least three seconds can lead to a number of positive outcomes. Wait time gives students more time to think and reflect on the questions they are asked, which can lead to greater gains in their learning. This includes fewer failures to respond and decreases the likelihood of a student saying, “I don’t know”. A longer wait time can allow students to come up with a longer and stronger response that includes an explanation for their reasoning. Students are also more likely to ask questions and can feel more confident in their response. 

One particular study observed mathematics and science lessons where all of the students were between the ages of 12 and 14 years old. The findings showed strong links between increasing wait time beyond three seconds and higher cognitive level achievements in mathematics and science.

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How to use wait time properly

For many of us, this may be the first time we’re hearing about wait time. But now that we know how significant it can be, we should aim to take advantage of it. Not only will this help our students come up with better responses, but it can also give us an opportunity to formulate better questions. Perhaps, during this wait time, we may realise that our questioning isn’t clear or locate possible misunderstandings. It’s always best to take a step back and reflect before we continue. 

Next time you’re having a conversation with a student, keep these points in mind:

  • Give students at least 3 seconds to respond to a question. Count this time out in your head and if they still seem to be struggling, rephrase the question.
  • Tell students you’ll come back to them. It can be a lot of pressure to answer a question in front of all their peers, so simply telling them to take their time and put their hand up when they’re ready will help them feel relaxed.
  • Tell your students about wait time. Making students aware of the benefits of taking an extra second to think before responding can make a huge difference. Instead of jumping to conclusions, they may instead reflect in their minds and come up with a solid and logical response.

Final thoughts

Extending wait time is a very simple way to enhance learning. Whilst 3 seconds may not seem like a long time, it has been shown to make a difference. Students have a chance to reflect on the question and develop a deeper understanding before responding. Implement this extended wait time into your classroom conversations and see the positive influence on your students!

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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