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The power of breaks in the learning process

Learning synchronized swimming or problem solving requires several hundred hours of practice. To maximize learning efficiency, practicing is good, but taking breaks is essential. This Edutopia article cites three scientific studies that demonstrate why breaks are not only desirable, but necessary in the learning process.

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Learning synchronized swimming or problem solving requires several hundred hours of practice. To maximize learning efficiency, doing drills is good, but taking breaks is essential. This article from Edutopia (cites three scientific studies that demonstrate why interruptions are not only desirable, but necessary in the learning process.

A discovery that changes our understanding of the learning process

Published in 2021, the results of Leonardo Cohen and his team of neurologists from the National Institute of Health surprised many in the educational community. Indeed, it is commonly accepted that in order to learn a gesture or a knowledge, one must practice. In neuroeducation, repetition allows the consolidation of neural circuits, which facilitates the retention of information. Pauses between two activities are often perceived as a break in the learning process, a time when the brain rests, gets energized and returns to its initial state, ready to resume its work. However, Professor Cohen's work shows that this is not the case.

In his study, young adults connected to devices that capture neurological activity had to learn to write with their non-dominant hand. The work sessions were interspersed with short breaks. During these periods, brain activity was 20 times faster. Nerve impulses flowed from the neocortex, where motor and sensory information is processed, to the hippocampus, the memory center, more than 12 times per second! The brain seems to use this time to replay, in a loop and at full speed, its new learning.

These results make the researcher say that our understanding of the mechanisms of memorization has just taken a big step forward. Until now, we underestimated the role of pauses in the process of retaining information. In fact, breaks are as important as the exercises themselves!

For the introduction of breaks in class

Another researcher and teacher, Judy Willis, says that to promote better learning, breaks must be allowed on a frequent basis, before fatigue or boredom occurs. In her practice, she suggests a 3-5 minute break after 10-15 minutes of learning activity in elementary school, and after 20-30 minutes in high school. And what to do during these breaks? Nothing really special. Singing, walking or chatting with colleagues will not interfere with the memorization process that the brain engages in, on the contrary.

Combat cognitive fatigue

Another research study conducted this time in 2016 demonstrated the impacts of cognitive fatigue that sets in during the school day. For every hour that passes, the study showed a drop in performance tests, on the order of 1 % standard deviation. In practical terms, this equates to a loss of over 10 school days per year! However, by allowing more rest periods throughout the day, scores on the same tests increase faster than the decrease caused by cognitive fatigue. In other words, repeated breaks do more than compensate for lost performance, they improve it.

So isn't it time to take a break?

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About the Author

Phylippe Laurendeau
Phylippe laurendeau
For 25 years, the biologist, teacher, educational advisor and now technopedagogue has accumulated a rich and diversified experience in education. In her texts, Phylippe uses her background and her passion for digital resources, efficient practices and distance learning.

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