Wait Time: “What’s in It for Me?”


Jackie Acree Walsh explains the benefits of wait time (also known as think time) as described in her September 2015 Educational Leadership (EL) article, “A New Rhythm for Responding,” which she coauthored with Beth Dankert Sattes.

Walsh Wait Time 300x300What’s in it for me?—or WIIFM—is a question people ask when they’re considering a major change. As Beth Sattes and I suggest in our article in the September 2015 EL, teachers who begin using wait time in their questioning routines will have to make significant behavioral and cultural changes. Both Wait Time 1 (the several-seconds pause after you ask students a question) and Wait Time 2 (a similar pause after a student answers that question but before anyone else chimes in) challenge the usual fast-paced tempo of classroom talk. Why make the effort to change entrenched behaviors and try something that runs counter to usual practice?

To state it simply, consistent use of wait time—or think time, which better conveys the purpose for these pauses—can transform classroom questioning from a rote ritual that engages only a small percentage of students to a dynamic process that benefits everyone. This benefit is contingent on three conditions: (1) the questions a teacher asks must be worthy of thought, (2) students must believe that the purpose of questions is to surface what they know (not to guess the teacher’s answer), and (3) students and teachers must know what to think about during the pauses.

Let’s focus on the “what to think about” part. After asking a question (Wait Time 1), a teacher needs to decide the following things:

  • Do most students understand what I asked? Do I need to call on a student with a “knowing” look to paraphrase the question or rephrase it myself?
  • Who will I name to respond to this question?
  • What knowledge and what kind of thinking should an acceptable response include?

Wait Time 1 affords a teacher three to five seconds to consider these questions before she names a student to answer. Meanwhile, all students can think about what they know about the question and prepare to answer aloud or to silently compare their answer to the speaker’s.

During and following a selected student’s response (Wait Time 2), the teacher should make three additional decisions:

  • Does this answer meet the expected criteria? If not, where is the gap?
  • What follow-up question(s) might help correct any misunderstanding or take a correct response deeper?
  • Which student(s) should I ask to react to or restate this student’s answer?

This second pause gives teachers time to engage in complex thinking. It also allows the responding student to modify his initial thinking—and lets the rest of the students compare their answers to the speaker’s and prepare to contribute.

The WIIFM of wait time is the opportunity to transform questioning into a process that supports real-time formative assessment, incorporating feedback to and from students and student self-assessment. More students are meaningfully engaged and student learning increases.

So why wait? Because there’s a lot in it for you and your students!

Visit the ASCD website for the September 2015 Educational Leadership issue.


Jackie Acree Walsh is a consultant and professional developer in Montgomery, Ala., and the author of the upcoming ASCD book Questioning for Discussion. Connect with her on Twitter @question2think.