When presenting, it is easy to keep on talking and fill out every moment of silence. Silence can indeed feel awkward - but there is great potential in keeping a slower pace. A short pause after a statement or question helps your audience to get their thoughts together and makes it easier for them to contribute. By pausing more often, you get continuous feedback on what you are presenting and can better engage your audience.
That is how long a teacher waits for a response to a question. One second is the time you are given to:
But by the end of this single second, the teacher has already posed a new question. And then another one. What happens if someone is lucky to manage to respond? In this case, the teacher will follow up the answer with another question - in just one second. This leaves no time for even fully grasping what the answer was about before we need to move our attention to the next cascade of questions.
Mary Budd Rowe, a science educator and researcher did a series of measurements on how teachers pause when they ask questions. She defined two pauses - wait time 1 and wait time 2. Wait time 1 is pausing after asking a question. Wait time 2 is pausing after a student response. Rowe found that teachers wait under one second for the students to start to reply (wait time 1). Teachers also wait less than one second after the students reply before they react or pose the next question. One second sounds awfully short and stressful. But what happens when that time increases? This is what Rowe found:
When the wait times are short, students’ answers stay short. Increasing wait times (especially wait time 2) helps students elaborate and explain their thoughts rather than give short phrases. The lengths of the answers increased by 300-700 %, sometimes more.
Students get the opportunity to elaborate and support their answers with evidence and logical reasoning when the wait times increase.
Have you ever had a vague idea about a question but been unsure how to respond? You would probably not start thinking out loud in a fast-paced dialogue. When the atmosphere is calmer, there is more room for speculation and elaborating ideas.
Students typically do not ask many questions, and when they do, it is mostly to clarify procedures. Increasing wait times make students ask more about the topic and address more questions to other students.
With short wait times, the teacher throws out questions and the students compete for the chance to respond. Longer pauses, especially wait time 2, help students to listen to each other.
In 30% of the situations when the teacher waits for just one second, the response will be “I don’t know”. What if the student actually does not know the answer? It does not matter - with longer pauses, they are more likely to spontaneously go on with the discussion even if they tried to pass at first.
This may seem counter-intuitive - would it not be easier to keep attention when there is constantly something that goes on? However, fast-paced questioning comes with a higher need to actively discipline. Longer wait time motivates students - probably because they feel that their thoughts are valued.
Only a few students respond during short wait times, typically the same group of six or seven. Longer pauses increase the variety of contributors, and it is particularly beneficial for students that are considered as low performers. This also changes the teacher’s expectations, which is super important for how they will continue performing!
When given enough time, students get more confident and can better argue for their statements - unlike from the rapid interactions, when they try to guess which response the teacher wishes to hear.
It is not only the classroom interactions that benefit from longer wait-times. Some studies show positive effects on test scores and written performances as well.
Longer pauses help teachers to have a consistent dialogue with the students. Instead of following a fixed plan, they pay more attention to what the students propose and build more upon their ideas.
Teachers ask fewer questions, but their questions focus more on encouraging the students to elaborate or clarify their thoughts. Increased wait time gives the teacher more opportunity to actually listen to what the students have to say.
Research shows that teachers expect more from already high-performing students and have low expectations for those who contribute less in class. With longer pauses, teachers get the chance to recognise the students that they did not see earlier. This leads to a change of expectations and this, in turn, will improve how students perform.
“It’s the first time in all my years in school that anybody cared about what I really thought – not just what I am supposed to say.”
We know that one second is too short, but how long is long enough? According to Rowe, there are notable effects at the 3-second threshold. Waiting for at least three seconds after asking a question is a good start, but sometimes you need more time. The most important is to keep a disturbance-free silence that gives everyone a fair chance to process the information and make decisions.
A short wait time cuts off elaborate answers and prevents students from listening to each other. Be extra mindful of wait time 2 to increase student-student interaction. The audience must have sufficient time to consider the responses and have a dialogue about them.
Do not interrupt the student, even if she or he hesitates during the answer - it is important to give enough time to bounce back. The same goes for self-initiated questions. Let the student have autonomy over their speaking.
While keeping the wait time, make sure that the question is clear and well-structured. Imprecise questions with a long silence can be confusing, frustrating and lead to no answers at all.
The wait times can be very helpful for the presenter to connect with the audience. Pausing splits up the presentation in bite-sized chunks, which makes it easier for the audience to get the main points and respond to the content. When you speak, use the pause to consider the situation and decide what your next step should be.
In her research, Rowe studied sound tapes of conversations in elementary school science classes. She also identified similar effects in both high school and college education (developing a special lecturing procedure) and in special education, where both gifted students and students with disabilities benefit from longer wait times. Rowe concludes that the results are applicable to different instructional situations, both in school and business settings.
Obviously, we are more inclined to having a fast-paced dialogue - it is simply awkward to keep silent and wait. This means that we need to actively practice to achieve longer wait times. Taping a conversation is an eye-opening method to see how we communicate. Avoid repeating an answer - it cuts off the pause and students can definitely tell from the tone of the voice which answer the teacher likes or not. Also, be careful of “yes... but…” and “...though” - these are clear indicators of rejected answers. Having something that reminds you of slowing down during a presentation is helpful. You can ask a colleague to give you feedback or remind you to hold longer pauses. It is important to practice continuously because we tend to forget about it over time and go back to our regular wait time-patterns.
Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/002248718603700110
Stahl, R.J. (1995). Using "Think-Time" and "Wait-Time" Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC Digest (ED370885). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED370885