The Waiting Game: Increasing Wait Time


I’m from New York so it should come as no surprise that I am not very good at waiting.   As a result, I struggled (and still do) to give my students ample wait time during class discussions.

Apparently, I’m not alone.  In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe found that the silence that followed elementary science teachers’ questions and students’ answers lasted less than 1.5 seconds in classrooms.

Why is wait time, or think time as it’s also called, important?

Rowe found that there were many benefits for students when wait time was increased to 3 seconds or more.  These included:

  • A decrease in “I don’t know” responses
  • An increase in the length and correctness of responses
  • An increase in the number of students that participated
  • An increase in student achievement scores

From my experience in math classrooms, I’ll also add that giving students more wait time creates a norm about what is valued in math class.  Solving the problem quickly becomes less important than thinking and reasoning about a problem.  That’s the message I want to give students about math.

So why is it so hard to do?

For me, the silence was uncomfortable at first.  Three seconds feels like forever in a classroom.  I was worried that my students would get off task or become bored.  However, I found that if the questions were appropriately challenging, students would stay on task.  For those who solved the problem in a shorter amount of time, I encouraged them to think of another way the problem could be solved.  After a while, the students and I became more comfortable with the silence and wait time became a norm in our classroom discussions.

I’m curious to learn more about your experiences with wait time.  How long do you wait after asking a question?  What benefits have you noticed as you increase wait time?

Want to know more?  Check out these resources:

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up!. Journal of teacher education, 37(1), 43-50.

Rowe, M. B. (1972). Wait-Time and Rewards as Instructional Variables: Their Influence on Language, Logic, and Fate Control.