We know that giving students even a few seconds of “think time” after asking a question can make a big difference in the quantity and quality of the responses we receive. Using “wait time” (waiting at least three to five seconds) gives students time to recall, connect, and analyze information that can lead to better responses. However, like with most instructional strategies, there is more we need to consider if we hope to maximize the impact and increase the learning that results from wait time.
Of course, there are times when wait time is less crucial to achieving our purpose—for example, when we are working with students to increase automaticity with core facts and processes. Similarly, students typically require less time to formulate yes-or-no or true-or-false responses.
When we want students to consider, reflect, and genuinely think, wait time can be a powerful tool. It can help us to level the playing field for students who may understand key content but need more time to process information and formulate a response. Even students who typically volunteer an answer can benefit from a few seconds of additional thinking time to fully consider what has been asked. Here are seven tips for making the most of the additional thinking time.
Ask questions that are worthy of thought. The best questions for wait time are complex, thought-provoking, and personally relevant to students. They are questions that invite students’ thinking, reflecting, and responding.
Be comfortable with silence. Time to process information and formulate responses can feel uncomfortable at first. Resist the temptation to rephrase, paraphrase, or restate the question too quickly. Allow at least three to five seconds of silence before interrupting it or calling on a student for a response. Consider counting the seconds to yourself until you become comfortable with the time lapse and can sense when five seconds have passed.
Signal students that you will be “cold calling” rather than selecting a volunteered response. Here, wait time is positioned so that everyone has an opportunity and reason to consider the question and formulate a response. Consider avoiding eye contact with students during wait time to avoid students concluding that you have decided on whom you intend to call. Additionally, consider spending a few seconds jotting a note or reading a few words to signal that you have yet to decide on whom to call. We can assume that some students will initially try to read our behavior to determine whether they will be called upon or whether they can stop thinking and relax. Some students and circumstances might even warrant you providing a heads-up the day before; consider pulling certain students aside and telling them the question you will be asking so that they know you intend to call on them the next day. Not only will this allow the students time to think of how they will respond, but committing to this will result in more students’ voices being heard.
Resist collecting a single response and moving on after giving students time to think. Rather, collect multiple responses before providing your own comments, reinforcement, or follow-up question(s). This approach signals to students that just because someone has answered, that does not mean that the discussion will move forward. Everyone needs to remain engaged and ready for additional responses.
Be patient and persistent. Students are likely to come with limited experience with wait time. They may be accustomed to routines where the students who raise their hands are promptly called on and correct answers are signals that the discussion will move forward. Some students may assume that by not raising their hands, they will not be called upon. You may need to extend your patience and resist giving in and moving on when too few volunteer responses. Inform students that you are comfortable with silence and are willing to wait. However, be careful not to get into a power struggle. Usually, a little nudging is enough to communicate that you are serious in your expectations.
After students have a few seconds to contemplate a response, ask students to turn to a partner to discuss their thinking; you may have heard of this being called “think-pair-share.” You might even pose questions with more than one obviously correct answer to add energy and variety and intensify the discussion. Challenge students to develop a response with which they both can agree. Once students have decided on their response, you might collect several responses before adding your perspective. You might also note consistencies among responses. You may even inquire whether any of the pairs were unable to agree on a response and collect both perspectives before commenting. The discussion might conclude by inviting students to comment on what they have heard and where they note common themes.
Create time for everyone to think about what has been said once responses have been offered. This step is often called “Wait Time 2.” Rather than immediately providing reinforcement, commentary, or interpretation, wait a few seconds to allow students to think. Again, eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors matter. Just staring at the student who responded or immediately moving on to look at another student can be uncomfortable and be read as indicative that the answer was not satisfactory. However, nodding slowly and allowing your eyes to drift or focus elsewhere as though you are thinking, too, can signal to students that the question and response are still active. After a few seconds, and before you weigh in, you might even turn to another learner and ask their thoughts on the question, what they might add, or to comment on the response. Here, too, wait time can encourage additional thought and more extensive analysis.
Wait time is a powerful tool to support reflection, discussion, and deeper learning. However, it requires intentional discipline, patience, and strategic thinking in order to be effective. Still, the benefits of wait time, once it becomes routine and well thought out, can empower all learners and build better thinkers.