Thinking Students

Increasing wait time after asking a question in your class helps students practice critical thinking skills.

By now, most instructors are familiar with the value of actively involving students in class through asking questions. But it can feel awkward or even frustrating when questions posed to a classroom full of students are met with nothing but crickets. A first impulse may be to just cold call a student and hope for the best or for the instructor to provide the answer her- or himself.

There is another option, though, and it involves a simple strategy with potentially huge payoffs. This other option is simply to wait. Let those crickets chirp for at least three (but up to even ten!) seconds, and see what happens.

Over 40 years ago, Mary Bud Rowe pioneered the notion that “wait time” – a name she gave to the length of time between when a teacher asks a question and when a student hazards an answer—was an integral variable in the overall quality of student responses and thus of student learning.

Rowe showed that after asking discussion questions of their students, most instructors (from elementary school through college) waited less than one second before calling on a student for a response or providing the answer themselves.  Robert Stahl expanded Rowe’s concept, recommending three second gaps at multiple points during a class period—not just during question and answer activities.

Students need time to identify and put into practice the critical thinking tools they are being asked to hone in class before composing thoughtful and coherent verbal contributions. Extending “wait time” provides them with a chance to do just that.

In fact, Rowe, as well as subsequent researchers, found that the length of student responses tends to increase at least threefold. Student responses tended to be more substantive, including more thorough argumentation and less mimicry of what the instructor had already stated. On top of all that, increased wait time appears to be directly related to increased student motivation!

Instructors benefit from increasing wait time as well. Having more time allows instructors to better strategize how to incorporate student responses, and provides an opportunity to develop higher-level questions. Research shows that the combined benefit of increased wait time and higher cognitive questions is greater than the benefit of either of these alone.

This simple strategy—slowly counting to three while waiting out an “awkward silence”—is one of the easiest and most effective ways to allow chirping crickets to transform into churning wheels.