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!


Frustration Follow Up

Have a look at the following two scenarios that deal with frustration and its follow up.

Scenario One During a lesson, the student repeatedly returns to the beginning of the piece, starting over again and again in order to create sufficient momentum to make it through the unwieldy challenges in bar 3. Finally, in acknowledgment of having hit a brick wall, the student fumes, “I can’t believe this! I played this piece with no mistakes every day last week! This is so frustrating!”

What do you do? What do you say? Consider these options:

A. The teacher says, “Don’t worry. It happens to everybody. Why don’t you just give it one more try?”

B. The teacher says, “Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself… Everything’s okay.”

C. The teacher says something else.

While it’s easy to appreciate the teacher’s attempt to neutralize the situation in both options A and B, it’s interesting to consider how each of these options uses statements that are completely contradictory to the student’s experience.

“Don’t worry.” – The student has already passed the point of worrying. Telling him or her not to worry will most likely have no positive impact.

“It happens to everybody.” – A nice bit of information, but knowing it happens to everyone else doesn’t really give the student any sense of what to do next.

“Why don’t you just give it one more try?” – At this point, it’s highly unlikely that trying it one more time will produce a different result.

“Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself.” – Good advice that goes completely opposite to what the student is experiencing.

“Everything’s okay.” – Obviously everything is not okay. Saying it’s okay only indicates the teacher doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

As an alternative, I’d like to suggest that when teachers encounter student frustration like the above example, they consider four steps for follow up.

  1. Acknowledge the student’s response – “I hear what you’re saying.” This simple empathic statement goes a long ways to confirm that teachers are on the same page as their students.
  2. Solicit the student’s involvement – “What do youthink is going on?” Rather than jumping to solve the situation, teachers indicate their confidence in the student’s thinking process.
  3. Allow the student sufficient time to process what’s happening. It could take an entire 60 seconds of reflective thinking for students to come up with an accurate assessment.
  4. Demonstrate your willingness to contribute – “What do you need from me?” “What can I do to help?”

What’s important in this situation is for teachers to avoid contradicting the student’s experience by using neutralizing language. When teachers downplay the intensity of the student’s experience, it’s easy for students to lose confidence in the teacher’s ability to really grasp what they’re going through. When teachers empower students to come up with their own solutions, they prepare students for the inevitability of the next frustrating situation.


Scenario Two – This example comes from my own teaching of nine-year-old Jonathan. During the first several years of Jonathan’s lessons, I had become aware that he’s often frustrated with his own progress. Now he is in the third week of learning a new piece.

MBT – So how’s your new piece coming along.

J – Okay, I’ve learned the first two lines.

MBT – What about the next line?

J – Well, I haven’t had time for it yet.

MBT (I remember he said the same thing the previous weeks) You know, when I look at the third line, I see how it might be easy to get frustrated in learning it. Tell me – what’s your strategy if you get frustrated?

J – I walk away.

MBT – You walk away… I think I get what you’re saying… Because if you don’t walk away, you’ll probably just get more frustrated. So that seems like a good idea. But, what happens if you walk away every day for three weeks?

J – I’m not sure…

MBT – Well… I have the impression that when you walk away from frustration the first couple of times, it means you’re the one who’s in charge. But after that, when you walk away from frustration, it’s actually line three that’s in charge. It’s kind of like – every time you walk away, you leave a brick for line three to use in making an even stronger wall against you. And if you continue to walk away, the wall just gets bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger. Can you see where I’m going?

J – Um hm.

MBT – So I’m thinking this week might be the time to change your strategy with frustration. How about when you get to line three, you just sneak past the wall? You don’t need to knock it down. Just sneak past without the wall being able to find out about it.

* * *

Honestly speaking, I had no idea whether my suggestion would work or not. It was a spontaneous metaphorical application. Would it be enough to help? I could only hope. After Jonathan played the entire piece from beginning to end without any sign of frustration at his next lesson, I remember smiling and congratulating him on sneaking past the wall.