My Eight Second Rule

How long on average do you think teachers wait for their students to answer questions?

  1. 1 second or less
  2. 5 seconds or less
  3. 10 seconds or less
  4. 10 seconds or more

The correct answer is A. 1 second or less.

Yes – it’s true! This astonishingly brief amount of time is substantiated by research completed in the 1970s at the University of Florida. At that time, science educator Mary Budd Rowe wanted to find out more about what happens when teachers ask questions of their students. She conducted a six-year research project in which one of the criteria she measured was the amount of silence that followed teachers’ questions. Believe it or not, she found on average that silence rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical teacher/student interactions across a wide variety of instructional situations and levels ranging from elementary schools to university settings, from classrooms to museums and business settings. Most teachers waited less than one second for students to answer a question.

So, as a teacher – How long do you think you wait on average for students to answer a question? 1 second or less… 10 seconds or more…

Of course, there are lots of questions students can answer in 1 second or less like What’s your favorite color? Is it cold out today? I like to classify those questions in the immediate-answer category. However, when teachers ask questions from a more reflective-answer category like Where’s the top of the phrase in line 2? What bar has the most intricate articulation on page 1? Students will definitely benefit from taking their time to respond.

Part of the challenge in waiting for answers may be related to the idea that we’ve all grown accustomed to the speed of technology. Just think about it… How long are you willing to wait for a document to open? How long do you expect Google will take to answer a search request? I suspect it’s not very long before patience is put to the test!

Another aspect of waiting for answers may be connected to how teachers feel about silence. Somehow, we get so accustomed to the 1 second or less wait time associated with immediate-answer questions there’s an assumption that all questions can be answered within a similar timeframe. It’s almost as if we interpret silence as the undesirable indication of students not knowing the answer. We may presume that quickly answered questions are a sign of students’ purposeful engagement with learning. Yet, when we think about it – quick answers may not be all that desirable because they’re most likely the result of students memorizing information or only tapping into surface materials. In order for students to engage in deep thinking, reflective processing, or analysis, we may need to slow down the timing of question and answer activities. We may need to get comfortable with silence.

In my own teaching, I adhere vehemently to what I call My Eight Second Rule. It’s my way of committing to wait through at least 8 seconds of complete silence before I jump in with a rephrasing of the question or a few words of reassurance. I’ve gotten very comfortable with allowing for silence as the necessary requirement for answering reflective questions, encouraging my students to be generous with their own thinking processes because reflective questions can take anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds to answer, maybe even longer on occasion. Often with teenagers who may seem perpetually annoyed with any kind of question, I like to support them with statements like, “Don’t rush your thinking. I have great confidence in your ability to think this through.” Or “Take your time. This is the kind of question that deserves your deepest thoughts. I know you can do it.”

So, in your teaching, the next time you find yourself waiting for an answer, don’t be afraid to internally count off 8 seconds before you start to worry your student can’t or won’t answer the question. I most confidently can assure you – the ensuing silence is well worth the wait!