Excerpted from “Learning to Use Questions and Using Questions to Learn:  Two Essential Skills for Promoting Active Learning” by Jim Eison, Ph.D., University of South Florida.


Research at all grade levels (Rowe, 1987; Tobin, 1987) has found that when a faculty member asks his or her students a question, he or she allows less than one second of silence before speaking again. 

“Wait time” is the term that has been used to describe the interval of silence after a teacher’s question and the start of a student’s reply.  “Wait time” has also been used to describe the interval of silence after a student’s answer before the teacher provides further explanation or elaboration.


When faculty extend the “wait time” following a question from less than one second to 3-5 seconds, several significant educational benefits result, including:

·        The length of students’ responses to your questions will increase dramatically

·        Students are more likely to support inference statements by the use of evidence and logic based on evidence

·        Students do more speculating about possible alternative explanations or ways of thinking about a topic

·        The number of questions asked by students increases

·        Failures to respond to your questions decreases

·        Student-to-student exchanges increases

·        The variety of students participating voluntarily in discussions increases as does the number of unsolicited but appropriate contributions

·        Students gain confidence in their ability to construct explanations and to challenge the logic of a situation

·        Achievement on written measures improves, particularly on items that are cognitively more complex


Faculty should be aware that:

·        These changes in student behavior don’t happen immediately. For a bit, students will continue to wait for the few with the quick hands to answer every question.  But persistence pays off.

·        Prolonged intervals do not produce improved results; limit the maximum interval of silent think time to 10-15 seconds

·        If the teacher refrains from commenting after a student’s response, it encourages more student-to-student interaction

·        Students will stop responding to instructor questions when they see that, following a student’s response, the instructor habitually offers a “Yes but…” reaction

·        It is important to avoid the “guess-what-I-am-thinking” game in which the lecturer asks what appears to be an open-ended question, but is in fact looking for a particular answer.  When this game is played, the teacher rejects what normally would be considered acceptable answers until the “correct answer” is given (Whitman, 1988).




Rowe, M.B. (1987) Using wait time to stimulate inquiry.  In W.W.Wilen (ed.) Questions, Questioning Techniques, and Effective Teaching. Washington, DC: National Education Assoc.


Tobin, K. (1987) The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research 57: 69-95.


Whitman, N.A. (1988) Developing lecture skills.  In J.C. Edwards and R.L. Marier (eds.) Clinical Teaching for Medical Residents. NY: Springer Publishing.