Incorporating Pauses & Wait Time Into Your Lectures

By Dr. Michele Larson


Traditionally, undergraduate education has been predominately lecture-based. With the shift to student-centered learning, many educators have had to determine the best method to provide students with content information that is engaging (instead of passive learning seen in traditional lectures), but still allows delivery of large amounts of content. Two strategies that can be used in traditional lecture situations, but allow for more learning, are the pausing principle and wait-time.

The pausing principle is a simple method of making traditional lectures into more efficient learning opportunities by incorporating well timed pauses in the lecture. This technique was first developed by Mary Budd Rowe in the 1970’s (Di Vesta and Smith 1979) and research indicates that adding short breaks (typically 2-3 minutes long) with group discussion of the content is the most effective for immediate and long-term recall of the content (Di Vesta and Smith 1979; Ruhl et al. 1987). Although giving students the same amount of time at the end of the lecture for individual review or group discussion can also be used effectively as this allows encoding and restructuring of the material (Di Vesta and Smith 1979). In either situation, the pausing should be structured around a specific prompt to aid students in discussion and review of the main topics from the lecture. In modern lectures, the use of instant response technology (iclickers, Poll Everywhere, etc.) during these pauses has also allowed instructors an opportunity to see and address student confusion on content, thus improving student learning (Dong et al. 2017).

The reason this technique works has to do with reducing or eliminating three types of mental lapses that can occur during a lecture: context shifting, low transfer of content, and cognitive fatigue (Rowe 1980). In context shifting, students do not realize that a shift in the topic has occurred during a lecture and thus become confused as they try to pull two dissimilar ideas together (Rowe 1980). Students may also experience a low ability to transfer the new content into their prior knowledge (low transfer of content/knowledge) or suffer from cognitive fatigue if the cognitive load of the content in the lecture is too high or covered too fast (Rowe 1980, Dong et al. 2017). By pausing during the lecture and allowing students to have short discussions on the content, all three of these challenges can be alleviated as students are able to process the content, gain insights from peers, and are less likely to maintain/form misconceptions around the content.

Another method to allows students more involvement in lectures is termed wait time. Wait time is characterized by short pauses (10-30 seconds) when asking students to respond to questions or similar prompts given by the instructor.  Too often, lecture professors cover material too quickly and then only give one or two seconds for students to respond to questions (Rowe 1980). The short period for student responses leads to students that either fail to even consider the question or give short, incorrect responses just to have the instructor go to the next student. In some situations, instructors propose questions and then answer their own question without eliciting student responses.  In all of these situations, the instructor has failed to give students adequate time to think about the question, has failed to provide insight into the process of understanding the materials, and has taught the students that the questions are optional for most of the class.

By increasing the amount of time given after proposing a question to a class, students not only have time to think about the question and possible answers, but also to form more complex answers while also encouraging more of the class to actively think about the question and possible answers. With wait times greater than 5 seconds, student responses to questions showed increased speculative thinking, increased use of evidence or inference in responses, increased student participation (by four-fold), and reduced non-response (“I don’t know”) answers (Rowe 1980). Although incorporating wait time can be uncomfortable (10 seconds can seem like an eternity) for the instructor, it can greatly increase student understanding of the topic and sets a precedence for needing time to answer student’s questions (if a student asks a question you do not know the answer to immediately, you can pause and give yourself 10 seconds to respond or reword the question and ask the student to clarify; both of these strategies give you more time to response to a student’s question and demonstrate that it is good to think about questions before responding.)

I have used interactive lectures with both pauses and long wait times in both my non-major and major biology courses. I usually start class lectures with a review of the previous class sessions information. I ask students to work in their table groups (3-4 students) to answer 4-6 prompt questions. Usually these are lower Bloom’s Taxonomy Level questions that help students recall the main topics from the prior class. I usually give the class about 5 minutes to answer the questions before asking students to explain their responses to the rest of the class. I usually call on different tables for their answers (and thus at least one of the students at the table needs to explain the answer) and if needed provide wait time (~10 seconds) for students at that table to respond (which is usually them determining who should explain more than needing time to come up with an answer). I have found that if you make sure students know they may be called on for answering a question (warm calling), you can reduce the wait time when asking students to provide answers to these types of questions (as they have had time to work through the prompts before being called on). Not only have I received positive feedback about the review of materials in this manner, but I have also been able to discover common misconception when I walk around the class during the 5-minute period that students are discussing the prompts.

Because I teach long block class sessions, I work hard to limit my lectures to less than 30 minutes (with an activity between the short lecture and the next lecture or lab activity). Thus, I usually only incorporate one pause during the lecture (while research suggest two pauses in hour long lectures). The activities for the pause range from Think-Pair-Share-Square to completing practice problems to more elaborate and open-ended discussions. I usually start with the simpler strategies (Think-Pair-Share-Square, polling, drawing, etc.) at the beginning of the semester to aid in building community and communication within the table groups. As the semester progress, the activities become more involved and require more teamwork to complete (although we revisit the earlier strategies when appropriate to the topic). The time for each activity can range from 2-3 minutes (Think-Pair-Share-Square, polling, practice problems etc.) to 10 minutes or slightly longer (group discussions, drawing complex processes, concept mapping as a group, etc.). At the end of most of these activities, I ask groups to share their work with the class (usually by calling on tables that I noticed had different responses to the same prompt or had particularly insightful comments on the topic). This allows the class to explore the topic before continuing with the rest of the lecture materials. By varying the strategy used for these pauses, students are less likely to become bored or complacent with their participation in these activities.

At times, the pauses are less activity oriented and more open-ended questions. I use this strategy when I think at least some of the student are familiar with the topic and can, with some guidance, find answers to science questions on their own (inquiry), instead of giving the information directly through lecturing. To make sure I use this strategy, I often place the question on a slide so that I remember that this topic is inquiry driven (the slide acts as a stop sign for me and gives the prompt to the students). An example of this strategy that I use at the beginning of the semester is asking the simple questions: What makes something living? This prompt helps students brainstorm about what traits are required for life and leads to covering the main characteristics of life. I could just lecture on these traits but find it helpful to show students that they already know or have some ideas about this topic. I often pair this strategy with Think-Pair-Share in case some students do not know enough to answer the question. This strategy helps student access their own knowledge and then the lecture provides more structure to answering the question.

Although incorporating pauses and wait is important for more interactive lectures and thus increased student learning, it is not always as easy as it may appear. Creating substantial learning opportunities during pauses requires more than just using one strategy and incorporating increased wait time can be easy to forget or uncomfortable to use correctly. However, once practiced and implemented, students are more engaged with the subject matter and show higher retention of the material than traditional, passive lectures.



Di Vesta, F. J. and D. A. Smith (1979). The Pausing Principle: increasing the efficiency of memory for ongoing events. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4:288-296.

Dong, J. and W. Hwang (2017). Pausing the classroom lecture: the use of clickers to facilitate student engagement. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18:157-172.

Rowe, M. B. (1980). Pausing Principles and their effects on Reasoning in Science. New Directions for Community Colleges, 31:27-34.

Ruhl, K. L., C. A. Hughes, P. J. Schloss (1987). Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall. Teacher Education and Special Education 10:14-18.