Our CommunityWhere conversations happen.

Worth the Wait

by Neil Finney

Effective questioning is the foundation on which learning occurs, and the forum, in which, risk-taking evolves. Creating the right atmosphere for students to think, process and share is ultimately based on one thing – patience.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am often guilty of choosing the first – and often quickest – hand that I see in front of me after asking a question to the class. This is how I can keep the pace of the lesson. This is how I can cover the content of the lesson. But, what if this is also how I am leaving some students behind? So what’s wrong with rewarding the efficient and quickest-thinking student? Well, studies show that waiting at least 3 seconds to provide adequate ‘think time’ will improve the quality of the response and success of more students involved.

I recently had the opportunity during a Collaborative Math Inquiry Project to watch an intermediate teacher in action, and she dazzled me with the power of purposeful wait time. She would ask a question. Prompt the students to “think about it.” Wait five seconds. Tell the students to “turn and talk to their partner about their answer.” Give 20 seconds. Announce “Now, what do we think?”

I watched this cycle take place for three different math questions in a safe, collaborative environment that ran like a well-oiled machine. She had built a supportive, discussion-rich learning environment where students could take risks, delve deeper into the questions and scaffold their learning using the ideas of others – consequence-free.

Years ago I watched a video where the presenter showed the audience what it was like for a student who has a learning disability to process information in an environment where the wait time was less than 3 seconds. To do this, the audience was asked to answer a question – but was not allowed to use the letter ‘e’ in their verbal response. They struggled to get the thoughts out and there was nowhere near enough time to express them before someone else had their hand up to answer (who had the luxury of using the whole alphabet in their word choice). It was eye-opening and it serves as a reminder for me to deliberately wait three seconds.

So, the next time you pose a question to your class and find yourself looking for the first hand to go up – ask yourself – why are all the other hands not up? The answer, students often respond to the environment we help to construct, and in knowing this, it is worth the wait, and certainly, worth three seconds of our time, to bring all students along for the ride.

What strategies or reminders do you use to make sure you give appropriate ‘wait times’ during questioning? Have you experienced something as a teacher that opened your eyes to the importance of being patient during class discussions?


During Neilʼs 10 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  • http://edfact.blogspot.com Kalisi

    This is definitely something I try to do. If I see that no students have raised their hand to answer my question I usually re-word the question and ask students to discuss their answers with a partner. Then I’ll ask them to share what they discussed. Also, if I always have the same student raising their hand I will say that it is a ‘No Hands’ question and warn that I will be picking victims instead of volunteers.

    • Janet Lee

      Hi Neil and Kalisi,

      I have found that the turn and talk strategy helps so much even with senior students. Everyone needs time to process ideas before finding the courage to share in front of the whole group. Kalisi, I like how you reword the question for your students. Sometimes it is the questioning that needs clarified. Purposeful questioning really makes a difference for students.

      Here is another idea to try. When students have an answer for a question, they raise their arms in the air. If they want to be called on they open their fist…if they do not want to be called on but know the answer they raise their arms with a closed fist. This will allow all students to participate and perhaps inspire the courage for participation.

      Thanks for the post, Neil.

      • http://neilfinney.blogspot.com neil

        Hi Janet Lee and Kalisi,

        Janet Lee – I really like the hand up with an open or closed fist strategy – what an inventive way to show student understanding while also gauging student motivation and comfort with sharing out loud.

        Kalisi – It is absolutely important to re-phrase or re-work a question when you see tumbleweeds rolling across the floor and hear only the sound of your own voice. What about incorporating whiteboards for students to write down answers (max. of a few words) and then ask all students to hold up boards for you to see. If it’s a longer response needed, students could write down their thoughts – that way you keep a running log for those who don’t wish to verbally share their insights. What do you think?

        • Janet Lee

          Wow, Neil! I really like the idea of the white boards. Students could really find their voices in a different way with that tool. I know that could work in the high school too. It is a great way to differentiate for all types of learners. Thanks for that! JL