Why longer wait times might transform your students' learning

Why longer wait times might transform your students' 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 Is Wait Time?

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. A review that looked at this effect further found that on average, this takes less than 1 second. However, they also 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.


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

What would this mean for you? Well, in the review they found that using technique allows students to contribute more to the lesson as students are 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.

As a teacher, you may also notice a positive change in your teaching style. One difference found in the review was that using longer wait time allows greater flexibility in teachers’ responses as well as a greater continuity in the development of ideas. You may also begin to ask more complex questions.

Your expectations for your students may also change. The researchers also found that as students who were previously less involved became more engaged with the class, the teacher’s expectations for them also changed. This may then motivate the student further allowing them to perform to their greatest potential.

Lastly, having longer wait times can also benefit students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Within another study, it was found that having a 5-second wait time gave students the time to fundamentally process the question being asked.


Applying This to 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. To ensure you have a 3-second waiting time, count the seconds in your head before picking out a student to answer and after a student finishes answering the question.
  2. Explain to students the benefits of having a longer waiting time and encourage them to wait 3 seconds to allow them 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.


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 Thought

Research indicates that having a longer wait time is very beneficial in helping students participate more, as well as having a positive impact in their academic performance. A simple way of ensuring you do this 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 and encouraging students to do the same would make it easier to implement this technique in the classroom.

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

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