Using Wait Time to Support Effective Questioning

Instructional Practices Icon

John Hayes, Eagle River, WI

One of the co-teaching teams that I am coaching this year is digging into wait time as a strategy to support their questioning. Their questioning goal made me reflect on how integral wait time is for effective questioning. Many teachers are familiar with the usual application of wait time. The teacher asks a question, “What do you know about this problem so far?” The student does not reply immediately, so an internal clock begins to count both in the teacher’s mind and in the student’s mind, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi… This waiting game is called wait time and only ends after either the teacher cracks and scaffolds the question, or the student responds. Wait time is important because it supports productive struggle in the classroom and it provides students an opportunity to organize their thinking before responding. This has many implications that are linked to status and being culturally responsive. In this article, I will connect wait time with the three modes of questioning that I have seen in my coaching adventures: Teacher-to-Student, Student-to-Teacher, and Student-to-Student.

A colleague of mine once explained to me that there is wait time and then there is wait time squared. Wait time squared is a two-step strategy: first, the question is posed, and wait time is used, then the answer is given. Then, another period of wait time is used. This second wait time (wait time squared) is used to allow the speaker to elaborate further on their answer or for a team member to offer further explanation. I think there is a third type of wait time and it happens before the question is asked. That is, the teacher approaches a team and listens to the mathematical discussion before engaging with the team. I do not know how to reference this third wait time strategy, but wait time cubed does not feel appropriate.

As any mathematician would do, I need to create a notation, and I will use subscripts:

WT0: Wait time used before you pose a question
WT1: Wait time used after you pose a question
WT2: Wait time used after an answer is provided


When you think of questioning from a teacher to a student you might consider your pattern of questioning – Are you focusing the student’s thinking or funneling the student’s thinking? – and your type of questions – Are the questions advancing student understanding or probing their understanding? I do not think it matters what type of pattern or type of question you are using; all three types of wait time seem appropriate. I do wonder if you are less likely to use wait time when you are using a funneling pattern. Do you use probing questions when you are in a funneling pattern? When you are funneling, you may be less curious about how the student is thinking and more likely to race through a series of questions that guide students along the path of your own thinking. Perhaps all three types of wait time help us as teachers to spend less time funneling and more time on questions that focus the student’s thinking.


When I am working with a teacher who is curious about how students are questioning each other, I simplify student-to-student questioning into three categories: what questions – ”What did you get?”, how questions – ”How did you do that?”, and why questions – “Why did you do it that way?” As students move from “what” questions to “how” questions to “why” questions, their reason for asking becomes more complex. “What” questions are an easy way to either compare solutions or copy solutions. These questions probably do not necessitate any wait time on the students’ part. “How” questions stem from curiosity about the procedure or steps that were used to arrive at the solution. “Why” questions stem from students’ desire to make sense of how the content connects with prior knowledge. “How” and “why” questions may require WT1 or even WT2 to provide fellow students time to think about how they are going to answer. If you desire students to use wait time, you will have to teach them how to do it and why it is important.

Whether you are a student, teacher, coach, or leader, wait time is a valuable skill to help you determine how someone else is thinking. Wait time also helps us remember that doing mathematics is not about speed or rushing to the answer. Providing time to process and think can help our students appreciate the challenges that mathematics offers.

You are now leaving

Did you want to leave

I want to leave

No, I want to stay on

Algebra Tiles Blue Icon

Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

Edit Content

Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.