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4 reasons why teachers might (unintentionally) rush wait times


Maximising the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice goes hand in hand with thinking about wait times.

All our students’ brains work at different speeds. If we rush our wait times and solicit an answer too quickly, we are denying some of them the opportunity to successfully retrieve their answer. As Retrieval Practice is one of the best bets for learning, it means only a select few students will get the benefit.

A good amount of wait time allows students to give their best answer, not just their first one. In doing so, we create a fairer classroom, as rushing our wait times typically only benefits the quickest, loudest and most knowledgeable.

But simply knowing this isn’t enough to change the way wait time is used in classrooms – we must first understand why it is often on the shorter side to get better at it…

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4 reasons for short wait times in the classroom

So why might wait times be accidentally cut short? We think there are at least four potential reasons.

  1. The Action Bias

The Action Bias describes how we feel better when we are doing something compared to doing nothing. It is why many of us would rather drive for 30 minutes as long as we are moving rather than do a 25-minute drive that mostly involves sitting in traffic. Incidentally, it is also why goalkeepers feel the need to dive to save a penalty, whereas standing still would double their chances of saving it.

The need to “do teaching”, especially when being observed, can lead to the same feeling of guilt or discomfort during wait times. There is a chance that this is also linked to poor impulse control. Some of us find it hard to be patient. Self-discipline is arguably one of the biggest barriers to effective wait time.

  1. The Superman Complex

One of the attractions of working in education is that you get to help and support the development of students. It is easy to see how these good intentions can morph into wanting to protect students from the uncomfortable moments that often accompany the struggles they face on their learning journey.

But in rushing to “save” them, we may actually be denying them the very thing that could help them learn: having enough time to think deeply about your question and successfully retrieving the answer.

  1. The Curse of Expertise

This particular thinking bias describes how, once you know something, you find it hard to remember what life was like before you knew it. This piece of information becomes almost “obvious” to you and as a result, when you see a novice struggle with it, you are more likely to assume they simply don’t know it and won’t be able to work it out.

For example, if you know that 7×7 is 49 off the top of your head but one of your students needs a few seconds to do the maths, you may be tempted to rush and give them the answer too early – resulting in a decreased wait time.

  1. Misconceptions about what learning looks like

It is easy (and tempting) to conflate fast-paced interactive dialogue between a teacher and their students with real, deep, genuine learning. This may be what many assume learning looks and feels like. Almost as if neurons are firing back and forth, zipping and connecting all over the room.

But in reality, learning sometimes looks slow, uncomfortable and full of awkward silences. If we learn to embrace and lean into this, we give ourselves permission to extend our wait times for a bit longer than we normally would have.

The Caveat: Wouldn’t long wait times decrease motivation for our quickest students?

This is a question we are often asked. The truth is there are no easy and simple answers. Trying to find an optimal wait time for 30 students is impossible, as they all come to the classroom with different background knowledge. This is why class teaching is completely different to one-to-one tutoring. All we can do is try to do is:

  1. Capture as many students as possible
  2. Support those who need additional assistance
  3. Provide extra challenge for those who finish a task successfully and quickly

By better understanding why we might subconsciously rush our wait times, we can hopefully do the above even more effectively and strategically. We all probably experience elements of all four reasons why we rush wait times (the Action Bias, the Superman Complex, the Curse of Expertise and misconceptions of what learning looks like), but there is likely to be one of those that stands out the most to you. If you start by focusing on this one, chances are most of your students will benefit from it.

Final Thought

There is no optimal amount of wait time. It depends on too many factors, such as the type of question, how much time you have available and what your students already know. This is why teaching will ultimately always come down to an individual judgement call.

But by knowing the importance of sufficient wait times and the factors that may get in the way, we can help provide the conditions for most of our students to make the most progress possible. Ultimately, wait times could be a really effective tool in making our classroom the fairest and most equitable it can be.

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