Not all study breaks are made equal

Abby Krishnan

All too often I find myself deep into a study session when I realize my brain needs a break. Like clockwork, I open a new tab and type in Facebook. As I mindlessly scroll through the endless memes and videos, my brain wanders, and I fail to feel any less stressed than I was at the beginning of my break. 

Most students recognize the necessity of taking a pause when doing schoolwork. However, by spending most of their time on their phones and social media, students aren’t using their study breaks to their full potential. Instead, we can use alternative, scientifically proven approaches to maximize our study breaks. 

A 2014 University of Texas study showed that not all mental rest is equal. In the study, participants took a break between two tasks and were allowed to think about whatever they wanted. The researchers found that the participants who rested and thought about what they just learned were able to better process and rehearse new information than those who attempted new things during the break. Because the participants who rested weren’t faced with new mental challenges, they were able to more effectively retain information. 

The research demonstrated that study breaks aren’t meant to be periods of pure distraction and mental stimulation. Rather they should be times of decompression that allow your brain to process the material you just studied. Social
media often presents us with an overload of information — we’re force-fed a litany of digital media within seconds. While social media might feel mindless, in reality we’re interfering with our recent learning and harming our ability to retain information. 

While the science on study breaks can be complicated, we can use their findings to break bad study habits. Paige Schilt, the interim director of the Sanger Learning Center, said that one of the most important aspects of an effective study break is creating a built-in time component — setting aside the exact amount of time you want to take for your break. Activities with no end in sight, like scrolling on Twitter or cleaning your apartment, aren’t the best option. 

Schilt said that the most effective study breaks are ones that require your brain to “switch gears.” When moving to a new and different task, you activate the your brain’s executive functions, the part of the brain that helps you organize time. She recommends taking a 15 minute jog, spending time in nature or connecting with a friend in real life. Schilt also urges students to separate their studying into shorter bursts because it helps keep their brain on task.

Both Schilt and Katy Redd, associate director for Prevention and Outreach at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, highly recommend practicing mindfulness during study breaks. They said that practices like meditation aren’t as esoteric or mystical as they may seem — in fact, they’re accessible to all kinds of people. Getting started can be as easy as visiting a MindBody Lab on campus, which are set up to help guide students through meditation and thinking about their physical and mental health. 

The next time you pick up your phone to scroll through the UT Longmemes Facebook group, remember that the picture of McCombs photoshopped onto a snake isn’t as harmless as it seems — it could actually be restricting your brain’s ability to rest and process your recent work. Instead, put your brain to rest by doing something that you find truly relaxing — you deserve it. 

Krishnan is a computer science sophomore from Plano.