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Using Wait Time in the Classroom

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Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

Both the pause between a teacher's question and the student's response and the pause between the student's response and the teacher's reaction are known as a wait time. Learn about both types of wait time in the classroom, how are they used to optimize students' learning, what's the effect of implementing a longer wait time over the number of questions made in an entire class period, and why it's better to implement shorter wait times in cases of rote memorization. Updated: 08/19/2021

Wait Time 1

'Class, why did the Pilgrims invite the Indians to the very first Thanksgiving?'

'…after the first corn harvest?'


It can be extremely awkward when a teacher asks the class a question, and it's met with nothing but crickets. Research has shown that in most classrooms, students are typically given less than one second to respond to a question, regardless of grade level. At the end of that second, some teachers break the silence by either expanding the question or providing the answer. Other teachers choose to cold call on a student for an answer, which typically results in a brief recall response or an embarrassed shrug.

This time period between the teacher's question and the student response is called wait time - or more specifically, wait time 1. This term was coined by Dr. Mary Budd Rowe, who conducted extensive research in hundreds of elementary school classrooms in the 1970s and 80s.

Her research has been replicated many times at all education levels, and the results have been consistently the same across all studies. They've shown that increasing wait time 1 to a minimum of three to five seconds gives students a better chance of recall and has a positive effect on the quality of student responses, and therefore, on student learning.

In other words, by waiting out the awkward silence, teachers give students an opportunity to remember the information and articulate a good answer.

'Class, why did the Pilgrims invite the Indians to the very first Thanksgiving?'

Dr. Rowe discovered from her research that when teachers purposely increased wait time 1, several changes occurred in the students' behavior: responses lengthened and were of higher quality, self-confidence increased, volunteers and guesses increased, and students began to interact with each other to discuss the topic. These are very valuable changes that can have a huge impact on the ability of the teacher to reach the students and the ability of the students to understand the information.

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  • 0:05 Wait Time 1
  • 2:26 Wait Time 2
  • 4:12 Implementing Longer Wait Time
  • 5:26 Rote Memorization
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Wait Time 2

As you might expect after learning about wait time 1, there is another type of wait time that's called wait time 2. It is the time period after the student's initial response and before the teacher's reaction.

Like wait time 1, research shows that the average length of wait time 2 is less than one second. However, the optimum length is, again, a minimum of three to five seconds. By increasing wait time 2, teachers give students an opportunity to elaborate on or complete their answer. This has a number of benefits, including a lead-in to great discussion.

For example, imagine you are a history teacher and have asked a student his opinion about which U.S. president was the best. He might respond with Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he finishes his response, you wait, nodding encouragingly, with all of your attention focused on him. He slowly elaborates and adds his reasoning, which leads to another student's agreement and further discussion on the topic. That discussion ends up involving most of the students in the class.

By simply waiting to see if there was more to the student's answer, you provided him with an opportunity to really think about the question and articulate a full response, which resulted in higher-order thinking for him and other students in the class as well.

Increasing wait time 2 is also beneficial in another way, as it gives the teacher additional time to think about whether the answer was correct, incorrect, or partially correct. It also gives him or her extra time to decide on the best response to the student.

Implementing Longer Wait Time

Although it seems fairly easy to increase wait time 1 and wait time 2 by simply waiting longer for a response, it's not as simple as it first appears. It can be very difficult for teachers to implement a longer wait time, especially when they have to get through a lot of material in a short amount of time. In most classes, discussion is fast-paced, and the students have little time to think. The teacher usually dominates the conversation and moves quickly from one point to the next.

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