Students Need Time. We Need Time Too.

It is recommended that teachers utilize a wait-time of at least three seconds when asking a question regardless of the difficulty of that question.

Gilliam et al., 2018, p. 297
Students & teachers are often in “different time zones”.

The teaching mode being used in the time of pandemic has made me reflect a lot on how to deliver my materials, how to interact with students, and how to pace my class. I’m confident in getting the message across with my delivery, and I get more and more used to talking like doing radio shows.

The class replays, along with the main and supplementary materials, are all uploaded on the learning management system. The materials also include in-class and take-home exercises, so that they can practise what they have learnt in their own paces. They also expect my feedback after they have submitted their exercises, which I did — I’m more than happy to.

But I don’t often feel secure or patient when we are doing in-class activities together.

For example, normally I would ask a question verbally, and ask students to answer it by typing in the chat room, let’s say waiting 2 to 3 minutes for their responses. When the time’s up, there would often just be my message, lonelily waiting there.

This resembles the awkward silence in the classroom, where students are afraid to speak up. But the difference is in the physical classroom, you can still invite the unfortunate students to say a few words, or you can read the subtle cues to decide how to proceed. However you’re trying to nudge them on Teams or Zoom, the messages often fall into the abyss.

But interestingly, sometimes when I send out another message, theirs would pop up, however minimal those responses are. So this means, to me, two possible scenarios:

  1. Students need more time;
  2. I need more time.

Students’ response time doesn’t necessarily reflect capability, motivation or attentiveness. I often assume they are going to give answers in real time, because it’s “instant messaging” if they don’t turn on their mics or cameras.

But the more I interact with them, the better I realise that they aren’t in the same “time zone” as I am. I assume my questions are simple; students need time to digest and process.

So when I give them a couple of more minutes, or set a time limit very clearly, quality answers often emerge in the chatroom. Sometimes it could be some students who couldn’t stand the awkwardness arising from the silence, and tried saying something. Though those who usually answer the questions would be the “dedicated” fellows, you have to respect the classroom dynamics: it’s up to the students to choose their game.

Alternatively, it’s possible I’m not patient enough. A 13-week syllabus is often jam packed with “useful” content. Usefulness is always relative: what I find useful as a teacher is not necessary the same as what they consider useful — or more properly, “usable”. In many cases, I would over-explain and leave very little space for both students and me to digest and reflect.

And very often, I feel drained finishing just a 1.5-hour lesson. I am not letting myself rest either.

So recently I’ve let the class have 2-3 short breaks in the class. The breaks may include a task or two, so that students can make good use of the short time to consolidate the ideas and try them out. Although on average there is only 10-20% of the students who would do the tasks, at least I’m giving enough time for them and for myself.

So the main take-home message for myself (or you if you’re interested) is that, just like in-class teaching, perhaps it’s desirable for me to speak less, leave more cues for them to do activities.

After all, in writing classes like mine, time should be better spent on honing productive skills, instead of giving elaborate lectures.

Have a good summer!

Gilliam, K. C., Baker, M., Rayfield, J., Ritz, R., & Cummins, R. G. (2018). Effects of Question Difficulty and Post-Question Wait-Time on Cognitive Engagement: A Psychophysiological Analysis. Journal of Agricultural Education59(4), 286-300.

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