The Longer You Wait, The Better The Reward…

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can teachers work more slowly to elicit more thinking from students?

It makes sense to slow down a little and give students a chance to think. The longer you wait, the better the reward…

Mary Budd Rowe Wait Time
Mary Budd Rowe (Bianchini, 2008)

Professor Mary Budd Rowe was an American educator and researcher, best known for her “wait time” work are. The longer a teacher waits before insisting students answer a question, the more inference and learning can be harnessed. In some respects, when teachers do this well, they are mindful of cognitive load and finely balancing instruction and processing at once, in micro-moments.

In the complicated and busy world of the classroom, how can teachers ‘teach slowly’ to reap more benefits in the classroom?

I’ve returned to her research paper to learn if there is anything else teachers can adopt from her work.

To do this well takes many years of practise.

Wait Time Mary Budd Rowe

Many questioning strategies can help teachers do this on their feet, developing a range of question types to hold students to account for their learning. Examples include pose, pause, pounce bounce; cold call, no opt out and fermi questioning.

The ‘wait’ or ‘pause’ is a key phase in any process you use.

When teachers ask students questions, they typically wait less than one second for a student response. F

urther, after a student stops speaking, teachers react or respond with another question in less than one second. The concepts of wait time 1 (pausing after asking a question) and wait time 2 (pausing after a student response) are discussed.

The impact on students?

To determine what impact teacher questioning had on students, Rowe documented the astonishing speed at which teacher and student exchanges took place. “I fed the sound from the tapes into a servo-chart plotter…” which plots the speech patterns and pauses.

  1. Wait time: the accumulation of pauses between student utterances before the teacher speaks again, in most of the 300+ recordings averaged 0.9 seconds!
  2. Quick reactions by teachers appeared to cut off student elaboration.


Rowe writes that teachers “in their eagerness to elicit responses from students, teachers often develop verbal patterns that make the achievement of wait time 2 unnecessarily difficult.”

Most, if not all, teachers will recognise this, particularly under observation. Rowe recommends that teachers who “stabilize longer wait time patterns” can reap the following three benefits in class:

  1. Teachers’ responses exhibit greater flexibility. This is indicated by the occurrence of fewer discourse errors and greater continuity in the development of ideas.
  2. The number and kind of questions asked by teachers changes
  3. Expectations for the performance of certain students seem to improve.

Simple fixes for teachers could include responding to students with some of the following scripts:

  • “Yes, and…”
  • “Tell me why you think this…”
  • “What else?…”
  • “Explain to me how…”

If we factor in a wide range of learning needs, then this simple classroom strategy becomes more nuanced and requires many more conditions to succeed. For example, effective behaviour management, subject knowledge and personal confidence. Rowe ends with a quote from a poem that gives teachers some reassurance: “We cannot leave it to the scientists – nor any form of government – each individual must fuse a philosophy with a plan of action.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult for many people to get average wait times up to 3 seconds or longer. However, we must try if we wish to reduce cognitive load and increase a degree of self-regulation.

Download the paper.

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