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This blog will feature articles containing strategies you can use in your face-to-face and online courses. I will work at updating this site at least once a month with different articles for the both types of courses along with references you can review for further research. This month features a strategy you may use in your face-to-face class to increase student learning.

OCTOBER 28TH, 2019

Increase Student Learning in Only 3 Seconds


person holds alarm clock in hands waiting 3 seconds to for student learning

I credit credit my husband as the inspiration for this article. He is a writing professor who is exceptionally good at waiting. He has a unique ability (and probably disturbing to some) to ask his students a question and then wait…wait through the awkward silence, wait through the students’ sideways glances and shifting in desk chairs until a brave student decides to volunteer and answer his question. His willingness to wait inspires me and has challenged me to use this technique with my own students. Interestingly, there is a lot of research on teacher’s use of waiting in the classroom and the positive effects it can have for student engagement and learning. The best news of all? Improving student learning only takes 3 seconds.

In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe coined the phrase “wait time” to describe the period of time between a teacher’s question and a student’s response. Rowe found that teachers typically wait between .7 seconds and 1.5 seconds before speaking after they have asked a question. However, when teachers utilize wait times of 3 seconds or more, Rowe found that there were demonstrated increases in student creativity and learning. Robert Stahl further expanded on Mary Budd Rowe’s concept in 1994 by coining the term “think time”—the period of uninterrupted silence for both teachers and students to reflect on and process their thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Stahl’s definition, although similar to “wait time,” more specifically labeled the action that teachers and students undergo during the period of silence as thinking.

Brain Processing Takes Time

Wait time provides a necessary opportunity for student brains to organize the complex tasks that are involved in thinking and reflecting after a question is asked. Even the fastest student brain needs time to hear the teacher’s question, reflect about possible answers, select the appropriate answer, and then raise their hand to share with their peers. Therefore, increasing wait time provides an opportunity for students to hear a question and formulate a response—allowing time for brain processing.

Another important reason for faculty to utilize wait time is because it provides an opportunity for students to think creatively, deeply, and beyond the ‘easy to reach’ solution. Growing up in a Google-search world, our students are expecting answers and solutions to come quickly. However, the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer. Wait time allows students to sort and filter their thoughts, a foundational skill needed in order to think critically. Similar to a shopping website such as Amazon, sometimes the answers that appear first aren’t necessarily what we are looking for. Students need time to filter and analyze their thoughts. Does this thought make sense? Does this thought answer the question that was asked? Does this thought connect to something we’ve learned in this class?

In fact, when faculty increase their wait time to 3 seconds or more it can have positive benefits for student learning and engagement:

1. The Length and Accuracy of Student Responses Increases

Rowe and other researchers have concluded that when teachers wait 3 or more seconds “there are pronounced changes in student language and logic.” Research has also shown that wait time is positively correlated with increased quality of student responses. So when teachers wait longer, student responses improve.

A strategy I use in my undergraduate courses is to wait 3 seconds for students to answer, and once I receive a response, I provide praise along with a follow-up challenge, “Excellent idea! I like the way you are thinking. Who else can think of an ‘outside of the box’ answer?” This type of response provides reinforcement to the student who was brave enough to answer and lets other students know that I value all types of answers, especially non-traditional, out-of-the-box responses. In my experience, praising students who respond is important, but then I challenge all students to come up with different and varied answers. These creative and varied answers are only shared in my classroom if I provide space and wait time.

2. Increase in Responses by Students Who Don’t Typically Respond

Students that are shy or introverts, as well as those with slower processing speed, will be more likely to participate in class discussions when given silent opportunities for thinking. Rowe believed that students who are typically not active in class discussions can “become visible” when given the opportunity for silent reflection. As an introvert myself, I remember sitting in my college classes and staying silent as the more outgoing students raised their hands first and were called on by my teachers. Thinking about my own teaching practice—do I call on the first raised hand I see? Or do I wait 3 seconds to allow an opportunity for more hands to go up?

3. Higher Order Cognitive Responses

Increased wait time has been associated with increased student reflection and critical thinking. Rowe and others found that when students were given 3 seconds or more of time to think, student answers were more thoughtful and supported by evidence. Similar to the increased length and accuracy of student responses, increased wait time allows students to access higher level thinking. Deep, concentrated thought needs time to occur. I tell my students that when I ask critical thinking questions, I am challenging their thinking to be circular rather than linear. I want them to ask questions of each other and, likewise, to take the time to think about each others’ questions. If I tell students that I expect them to critically think, I have an obligation to provide them with opportunities to engage in this type of thought. I am obligated to give them time.

As faculty begin this new semester, I hope they will consider adding this technique to their teaching toolbox to increase student learning—it only takes 3 seconds!


Naz, A., Khan, W., Khan, Q.Daraz, U. “Teacher’s Questioning Effects on Students Communication in Classroom Performance.” Journal of Education and Practice 4, no. 7, (2013): 148-158.

Rowe, Mary Budd. “Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up!” Journal of Teacher Education 37, no. 1 (January 1986): 43–50. doi:10.1177/002248718603700110.

Stahl, Robert. “Using Think Time and Wait Time Skillfully in the Classroom” ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington, IN. ED370885, (May 29914).

Wilkinson, Ian & Hye Son, Eun. (2009). Questioning.

Jennifer Sullivan is a community and caregiver liaison for LEARN. She is an educator of 16 years with a masters degree in multicultural and urban education. Currently, Sullivan is an adjunct at several universities including the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.

Integrating the Science of How We Learn into Education Technology

OCTOBER 11, 2019


For well over 100 years, researchers have labored tirelessly to understand how humans learn and remember. The resulting scientific literature is impressive, both in its scope and its depth. In fact, so much is now known that I doubt that any human could read and absorb all that has been written on the subject. The sad irony, though, is that it’s often not obvious how to use the findings of all of this research in educational settings.

Using the science of learning to improve education starts with identifying some general principles. Some of these principles grow out of a property of our brains: The more intensively we process information, the more likely we are to remember it. For example, before you go to sleep at night, do you ever find yourself reflecting on the events of the day? If so, what percentage of what you recall do you think you tried to memorize at the time the event occurred — versus how much you just happen to remember later, without having tried to memorize it earlier? When I’ve asked large numbers of people this question, they typically report that they intentionally tried to learn at most a tenth of what they recall at the end of the day.

So, where did the rest of what we recall come from? Deep processing. The mere act of paying attention and deeply thinking something through leads you to remember it. Much of what we remember is simply a byproduct of having paid attention and having thought about something.


The Future of Education

Preparing the next generation of leaders.

This general property of our brains implies that if we want people to learn something, we should induce them to focus on it and consider its nature and implications. There are many ways to accomplish this, which grow out of specific principles of learning that reflect particular ways to focus on and process information. For example, one is called the Principle of Desirable Difficulty, which states that people learn best when challenged not so much so that they get frustrated, and not so little that they are bored — but rather at just the right level, the so-called “Goldilocks Spot.” Getting people to the Goldilocks Spot means that we induce them to pay attention and process as much as they can, thereby enhancing the amount of learning.

But here’s a problem: What counts as the “just right” level of challenge differs for different people. What’s too hard for Sam may be too easy for Sally. And it’s worse than that: What counts as the right level varies for the same person, depending on the subject matter — in general, the more you know about something, the more difficult the material can be before you are challenged beyond your capacity to process effectively.

As you can imagine, with so many variables, applying this principle in a traditional classroom setting is challenging. This is where technology can come into play to use the Principle of Desirable Difficulty to enhance the learning of large numbers of students at the same time. First, you need a way to collect data on student performance. For example, students can take a short quiz after each class session, and the individual quiz questions would be coded according to exactly which competencies they are testing. The platform would track each student’s performance at a granular level.

Second, small breakout groups can be designed to allow students to engage in active learning (such as group problem solving, role playing, and debate) — such active learning has been shown repeatedly to be a very effective way to learn, in part because it induces deep processing. Critically, each breakout group activity can be classified according to which competencies are being drawn upon. Thus, the platform can assign students at comparable levels of the relevant (for that activity) ability to the same breakout groups.

Third, each of the activities that students perform in breakout groups can be “multilayered” — it can be approached more or less deeply. For example, in a lesson on figurative language, students might be asked to read a passage and identify all similes and metaphors. In this case, the subtlety of the language can be varied, so that some students may detect only the obvious examples whereas others may detect more subtle ones.

The social interactions during the breakout group could be designed to lead students (who are selected to be at comparable levels for that activity) to adjust how deeply they process the relevant information — to keep the activity from being boring, activities can be designed to encourage students to nudge each other to move to their collective Goldilocks spot. This approach would scale very well and incorporates the social component that is so important in learning.

Clearly, technology opens up huge opportunities to use the science of learning in new ways. To take advantage of these opportunities, we need to have clear learning outcomes, we need to measure each student’s progress in achieving those outcomes very granularly, and we need to shift to a focus on active learning. To achieve these ends, faculty and administrators must decide that successful teaching is a crucial goal and be willing to devote the time, energy, and resources necessary to achieve it.

Stephen M. Kosslyn is President and CEO of Foundry College; former Chief Academic Officer of the Minerva Schools at KGI, and former John Lindsley Professor, Department Chair, and Dean of Social Science, Harvard University. He’s the author of Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education.

Unlocking the Quiet Moment: Cell Phones, a Surprising Tool


In-class activities can be a great way to foster student engagement in the classroom. Depending on the activity, the results can vary greatly. Sometimes they can fall flat, but every so often an activity manages to hold the students undivided attention.

This leads to what my friend Tom refers to as “The Quiet Moment” – that moment where the entire room is silent and the students are all actively engaged in the material, researching and problem solving.  There is magic in that moment, when the gears are turning in their heads and they’re using the tools you’ve set them up with to learn on their own.  I never get tired of it and aspire to have it happening as often as possible.

Recently, I’ve found that an unlikely tool can help unlock these moments. The cell phone, ubiquitous in modern society, has the potential to become the bane of an educator’s existence.  It provides endless distraction, especially in courses that may be perceived as “dry” material.  I should know; I teach taxes.  Even in a class of all accounting majors, I tread a fine line between fostering engagement and putting people to sleep. So, I am in prime territory to fall victim to runaway cell phone use.

In a Teaching Professor article, “Cell Phone Use and Abuse: The Details,” several statistics illustrate the proliferation of this device. Two struck a chord with me.  First, more than 90 percent of students reported that they leave their cell phone on during class. Second, more than 80 percent of students reported that they check their cell phone during class.

The cell phone, ubiquitous in modern society, has the potential to become the bane of an educator’s existence. 

Other statistics cited included the number of syllabi with cell phone policies, university policies, and the effectiveness of instructor’s glares.  Ultimately, the majority of students viewed checking cell phones during class as acceptable.

This led me to a couple of conclusions: Cell phones aren’t going away and we can’t ignore them.

So, rather than fight a losing battle trying to prevent cell phone use in class, I have begun to turn the tables on the device, embracing its use in classroom learning. The modern smartphone is as much a powerful computer as it is a telephone.  I no longer view it as a potential distraction.  Instead, it has become a potent research tool that students are already adept at using.

One technique that I employ from time to time in class is this: rather than lecture on a given topic, which in my class may be a certain tax deduction or credit, I will present the class with the topic and then provide multiple situations where this item may or may not apply.  Then I tell them to pull out their phones, research the item, and decide for each situation whether the tax deduction or credit applies.

One recent example – I told the class that one of the hot button issues with the IRS right now is the classification of workers, employee vs. independent contractor.  Not telling them anymore than that, I said, “Pull out your phones!  I want to know why this is an issue and what questions should be asked to workers to help determine their status.” We filled two entire white boards with the potential questions and answers that they came up with.

Some may expect this free and open use of phones in class to degrade into a rampant Facebook and social media frenzy.  That’s not what’s happened in my class.  Rather, I’ve found that when students are empowered to discover the material on their own, they become very engaged, even competitive at times to see who can get the correct answer first.

Another benefit to these activities is that unlike homework where the student may get frustrated and give up, they are able to ask me that gnawing question and I can help them remove that mental roadblock.  Then they can get traction and resume their problem solving. This can happen all too often in unfamiliar territory. A problem gets started, but never finished – only to be looked at the next class with vague memory of having trouble with the issue.

To sum this up, I’ve found that cell phones can have a place in the classroom and can be used for learning rather than distraction. Can you think of a similar activity that might work in your class?  Researching the personal lives of romantic poets? Finding real life applications of theories and equations? Try it out and see if their use can unlock one of those “quiet moments” in your class

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on February 2, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.