Our world is increasingly fast-paced. Everything around us, from drive-in restaurants to on-line media-streaming services, caters to our desire to have what we want right now. Even our phones, with their magic genies—Alexa, Siri, Cortana—answer our questions within moments. We live in an “on-demand” world.
It is no wonder that in this context, our students are uncomfortable with silence. Not only do they not appreciate it, they don’t really know what to do with it. When a question is asked, they may expect that they have to know the answer right away—and if they don’t, then they can rationalise that they just aren’t smart enough or that the material is too hard. But we know that this isn’t the case. Our brains don’t function as “on-demand” devices. They need time to think, and thinking is a process. It takes time for students to take in information, decode it, process what is being communicated, formulate a response, and then come up with a way to communicate that response to others. This process takes even longer if you are dealing with students who are naturally introverted or who are functioning in a second or third language.
So what does this mean for us in the classroom? One thing is that we as teachers can do is to provide the time and space to encourage thinking. We can help our students understand that thinking is a process, and that it is okay to take time to formulate an answer to a question. But we must remember that our actions often send a louder message than our words. So in addition to telling students about how the brain works, we need to incorporate thinking time into our classes.
One of the simplest—and most effective—ways to do this is to make it a practice to include wait time after asking a question. Wait time refers to the 5-6 seconds post question where you allow your students to think about their responses. But while simple, providing wait time is not always easy. These five seconds can seem like an eternity, especially when you are confronted by that student in the second row—you know the one, the student who is frantically waving his arm in the air and practically jumping out of his seat because he wants to share his answer. It can be hard to let the students sit in silence, especially when hands start to shoot up. It takes discipline on the part of the teacher to make this practice a consistent classroom routine. It can even, at times, feel like a waste of valuable instructional time.
However, when you intentionally make students wait before allowing anyone to answer, you are signaling to your class that you do expect everyone to take time to think about and be prepared to respond to what you’ve asked. You give your language learners time to translate or decode the question. You provide students who take a little more time to come up with a response the opportunity to raise their hands. You even provide those over-eager students the chance to really evaluate the answer they are dying to give, instead of just letting them blurt out the first thing that popped into their heads. The practice of wait time actually increases student engagement. It also increases the likelihood that students will provide a correct or well-reasoned answer. Wait time gives students permission to slow down in the midst of the frantic pace of modern life. And in freeing them from the pressures of life “on-demand,” we empower students to be in control of their learning, and help to boost their confidence. That’s a pretty great return on the investment of pausing just a few extra seconds in class.
Becky Hunsberger, M.Ed.
Coordinator of Teacher Education
 The physiology of how introverts process information is actually quite a bit different from the way their extroverted peers do. For more about this, check out some of the work by Marti Olsen Laney and others on what makes introverts different.
 Honea, 1982; Swift & Gooding, 1983.
 Rowe, 1987.