Asking Effective Questions…Effectively: Slowing Down for Deeper Thinking

One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand…

Three seconds…what can you do in three seconds? Apparently a lot. 

Stahl (1974) found that “the typical teacher pauses, on the average, between 0.7 and 1.4 seconds after his/her questions before continuing to talk or permitting a student to respond.”

Reading the research on questioning and classroom discussion, two facts about the timing of questioning interactions stand out as familiar and interesting. 

“Research has shown that, after asking a question, many teachers wait less than one second, and then, if no answer is forthcoming, ask another question or answer the question themselves.” (Black et al, 2004) 

Silence can be very uncomfortable; when no response is forthcoming, it’s easy to assume that the learner doesn’t know the answer, so it’s tempting to take some kind of action to help them. 

Here’s the interesting one:

“In an award winning study, Swift and Gooding (1983) demonstrated that when teachers wait 2 – 3 seconds after asking a question — and again before asking the next one — both the amount and the quality of student discussion increase. More students talk, and students talk more; their talk is more relevant to the topic and more elevated in cognitive level.” (Dillon, 1984).

Actually, it’s more than interesting. The list of benefits that come when we simply wait is amazing. (See the end of this post for details.)

Mary Budd Rowe first introduced this concept in 1972. Since then, “other researchers found that regular use of “wait time” had positive impacts on both students and teacher attitude and behaviours” (McComas & Abraham). Two instances of wait time have been studied: Wait time 1 is the time between the end of the teacher’s question, and the eliciting of a response. Wait time 2 is the time between the end of the student’s response and the beginning of the teacher’s next utterance.

There is no question that implementing wait time into your practice is challenging. We need to feel that we are taking action to help the learner. We assume, “if learners aren’t saying anything, they need help.” But the research shows this is wrong thinking. It can be highly uncomfortable to wait 3 to 5 seconds, and yet the benefits are powerful. 

Stahl (1994) preferred to conceptualize ‘wait time’ as ‘think time’. He defined it as a “distinct period of uninterrupted silence by the teacher and all students so that they can both complete appropriate information processing tasks, feelings, oral responses and actions”. The phrase ‘think time’ emphasizes that the purpose of the pause is to give learners (and teachers!) time to process their thoughts.

Not everyone processes ideas and information the same way. Some of us are fast, others either need or like to reflect on things over a longer time, especially those who are learning the language of instruction, or for whom the culture of the classroom may be different from what they experience at home. When we don’t provide think time, questioning and discussion can actually become what Culican (2007) calls a ‘method of exclusion’, as we are only giving some learners the opportunity to express their thinking or contribute ideas to a discussion.

The pace of our questioning and discussion impacts the culture of learning in our classrooms. Mary Budd Rowe (1974) noted that in classrooms with little or no wait time, “the quality of discourse tended to stay at a low level and the pattern of interchange between teachers and children still more closely resembled an inquisition than a joint investigation or a reasonable conversation.”

Gall & Rhody (1987) add, “…wait time changes the social control pattern in the classroom…rapid-fire questioning provides a way for the teacher to maintain control over students’ social and verbal behavior. As teachers increase wait time, students feel more in control of their behavior. They may also feel that the teacher is more interested in their ideas than in testing their ability to remember facts.” (p. 36)

One last thought and a call to action:

The research shows that teachers can use effective questioning techniques to improve thinking and learning, improve learner motivation, and support learner agency.

How can you use think time in your questioning interactions and discussions with learners to help them process ideas more deeply? There are many aspects of this practice you can try. Pick one and let us know what happened! (For those of you who are wondering how this plays out in a virtual learning environment, stay tuned for a separate post about the assessment process and virtual learning.)

  1. Establish norms. Here’s an example:
    1. One person speaks at a time.
    2. Listen respectfully and carefully.
    3. Criticize ideas, not individuals.
    4. Focus on learning, not debating. The purpose is to hear many points of view and explore them.
    5. Seek first to understand, not to be understood. Ask for clarification when necessary.
  2. Pause for three seconds after asking a question before eliciting a response. (Wait time 1)
  3. Pause for three seconds after the student has finished their response before starting to speak. (Wait time 2 — You’ll be amazed at how much more they will contribute.)
  4. Explain the reasons for the pauses to your students. Remind them that they all have a responsibility to use the time to think of how they might respond, and then to share their thinking in the discussion. 
  5. Explain that you will be calling on students to respond after they have had time to think, rather than taking responses from volunteers who raise their hands. (This is called the “No-Hands” strategy.)
  6. Allow the student to pass and return to them after an extended think time.
  7. If it’s an open question, you might consider giving it to learners in advance of the discussion so they have time to think about it.
  8. Allow time for collaboration with peers before responding. One example is the Think-Pair-Share strategy. First have learners think about how to respond to the question on their own. This is the tough part of this strategy, because learners (children and adults) want to start talking about their thoughts. Insist that learners reflect on the question quietly for an appropriate amount of time. Next, ask them to share their thinking with another student. Third, elicit responses in a discussion.
  9. Consider using a “Write-Pair-Share” strategy. Same approach as Think-Pair-Share but students are making written notes of their ideas.

Results of Implementing Think Time

Benefits of Think Time for Students

  • The length of student responses increases between 300% and 700%, in some cases more, depending on the study.
  • More inferences are supported by evidence and logical argument.
  • The incidence of speculative thinking increases.
  • The number of questions asked by students increases, and the number of experiments they propose increases.
  • Student-student exchanges increase; teacher-centered “show and tell” behavior decreases.
  • Failures to respond decrease.
  • Disciplinary moves decrease.
  • The variety of students participating voluntarily in discussions increases. Also, the number of unsolicited, but appropriate, contributions by students increases.
  • Student confidence, as reflected in fewer inflected responses, increases.
  • Achievement improves on written measures where the items are cognitively complex.

Benefits of Think Time for Teachers

  • Teachers’ responses exhibit greater flexibility.
  • The number and kind of questions asked by teachers changes
  • Expectations for the performance of certain students seems to improve.

(Rowe, pp. 44 – 45)

For more information about norms for discussions, see:

https://learninginnovation.duke.edu/blog/2018/01/guidelines-interaction-better-class-discussions/

https://extension.umn.edu/public-engagement-strategies/setting-ground-rules-productive-discussions

References:

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.

Culican, S. (2007). Troubling teacher talk: The Challenge of changing classroom discourse patterns. The Australian Educational Researcher, 34(2), 7 – 28.

Dillon, J. (1984). Research on Questioning and Discussion. Educational Leadership, 42(3), 50 – 56.

Gall, M. & Rhody, T. (1987). Review of Research on Questioning Techniques. In w. Wilen (Ed.), Questions, Questioning Techniques and Effective Teaching (pp. 23-48). National Education Association of the United States. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED310102.pdf

McComas, W. & Abraham, L. Asking More Effective Questions. Retrieved November 2020. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/sites/ca.centre-for-teaching-excellence/files/uploads/files/asking_better_questions.pdf

Rowe, M.B. (1974). Relation of wait-time and rewards to the development of language, logic, and fate control: Part II-Rewards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11(4), 291–308.

Rowe, M. (1986). Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1). 43-50.

Stahl, R. (1994). Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED370885.pdf

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