Increase Student Learning in Only 3 Seconds

person holds alarm clock in hands waiting 3 seconds to for student learning

I credit my husband as the inspiration for this article. He is a writing professor who is exceptionally good at waiting. He has a unique ability (and probably disturbing to some) to ask his students a question and then wait…wait through the awkward silence, wait through the students’ sideways glances and shifting in desk chairs until a brave student decides to volunteer and answer his question. His willingness to wait inspires me and has challenged me to use this technique with my own students. Interestingly, there is a lot of research on teacher’s use of waiting in the classroom and the positive effects it can have for student engagement and learning. The best news of all? Improving student learning only takes 3 seconds.

In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe coined the phrase “wait time” to describe the period of time between a teacher’s question and a student’s response. Rowe found that teachers typically wait between .7 seconds and 1.5 seconds before speaking after they have asked a question. However, when teachers utilize wait times of 3 seconds or more, Rowe found that there were demonstrated increases in student creativity and learning. Robert Stahl further expanded on Mary Budd Rowe’s concept in 1994 by coining the term “think time”—the period of uninterrupted silence for both teachers and students to reflect on and process their thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Stahl’s definition, although similar to “wait time,” more specifically labeled the action that teachers and students undergo during the period of silence as thinking.

Brain Processing Takes Time

Wait time provides a necessary opportunity for student brains to organize the complex tasks that are involved in thinking and reflecting after a question is asked. Even the fastest student brain needs time to hear the teacher’s question, reflect about possible answers, select the appropriate answer, and then raise their hand to share with their peers. Therefore, increasing wait time provides an opportunity for students to hear a question and formulate a response—allowing time for brain processing.

Another important reason for faculty to utilize wait time is because it provides an opportunity for students to think creatively, deeply, and beyond the ‘easy to reach’ solution. Growing up in a Google-search world, our students are expecting answers and solutions to come quickly. However, the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer. Wait time allows students to sort and filter their thoughts, a foundational skill needed in order to think critically. Similar to a shopping website such as Amazon, sometimes the answers that appear first aren’t necessarily what we are looking for. Students need time to filter and analyze their thoughts. Does this thought make sense? Does this thought answer the question that was asked? Does this thought connect to something we’ve learned in this class?

In fact, when faculty increase their wait time to 3 seconds or more it can have positive benefits for student learning and engagement:

1. The Length and Accuracy of Student Responses Increases

Rowe and other researchers have concluded that when teachers wait 3 or more seconds “there are pronounced changes in student language and logic.” Research has also shown that wait time is positively correlated with increased quality of student responses. So when teachers wait longer, student responses improve.

A strategy I use in my undergraduate courses is to wait 3 seconds for students to answer, and once I receive a response, I provide praise along with a follow-up challenge, “Excellent idea! I like the way you are thinking. Who else can think of an ‘outside of the box’ answer?” This type of response provides reinforcement to the student who was brave enough to answer and lets other students know that I value all types of answers, especially non-traditional, out-of-the-box responses. In my experience, praising students who respond is important, but then I challenge all students to come up with different and varied answers. These creative and varied answers are only shared in my classroom if I provide space and wait time.

2. Increase in Responses by Students Who Don’t Typically Respond

Students that are shy or introverts, as well as those with slower processing speed, will be more likely to participate in class discussions when given silent opportunities for thinking. Rowe believed that students who are typically not active in class discussions can “become visible” when given the opportunity for silent reflection. As an introvert myself, I remember sitting in my college classes and staying silent as the more outgoing students raised their hands first and were called on by my teachers. Thinking about my own teaching practice—do I call on the first raised hand I see? Or do I wait 3 seconds to allow an opportunity for more hands to go up?

3. Higher Order Cognitive Responses

Increased wait time has been associated with increased student reflection and critical thinking. Rowe and others found that when students were given 3 seconds or more of time to think, student answers were more thoughtful and supported by evidence. Similar to the increased length and accuracy of student responses, increased wait time allows students to access higher level thinking. Deep, concentrated thought needs time to occur. I tell my students that when I ask critical thinking questions, I am challenging their thinking to be circular rather than linear. I want them to ask questions of each other and, likewise, to take the time to think about each others’ questions. If I tell students that I expect them to critically think, I have an obligation to provide them with opportunities to engage in this type of thought. I am obligated to give them time.

As faculty begin this new semester, I hope they will consider adding this technique to their teaching toolbox to increase student learning—it only takes 3 seconds!


Naz, A., Khan, W., Khan, Q.Daraz, U. “Teacher’s Questioning Effects on Students Communication in Classroom Performance.” Journal of Education and Practice 4, no. 7, (2013): 148-158.

Rowe, Mary Budd. “Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up!” Journal of Teacher Education 37, no. 1 (January 1986): 43–50. doi:10.1177/002248718603700110.

Stahl, Robert. “Using Think Time and Wait Time Skillfully in the Classroom” ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington, IN. ED370885, (May 29914).

Wilkinson, Ian & Hye Son, Eun. (2009). Questioning.

Jennifer Sullivan is a community and caregiver liaison for LEARN. She is an educator of 16 years with a masters degree in multicultural and urban education. Currently, Sullivan is an adjunct at several universities including the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.