Educators are always on the look-out for ways to make their teaching more effective, and it seems the secret to effective learning may be less study not more.
Researchers have found evidence to support the theory that taking regular breaks helps embed learning, a finding that has implications not just for schools and colleges but for businesses that run employee training.
The idea has been developed by Paul Kelley, a former high school principal whose interest in sleep and circadian rhythms led him to introduce later start times for students, on the basis that teenage brains are not at their best first thing in the morning.
As well as sleep, Kelley, now an honorary research associate at Oxford University and a past president of education for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has also explored the role of time patterns in encoding long-term memories.
Broadly speaking, this works on the basis that memories are created by neurons firing in the brain, but for these memories to become embedded, the neurons have to then be left undisturbed for a period of time.
In other words, if the neurons are distracted while they are making the changes that are involved in creating memories, then the creation of memories will be impaired.
But while this has a respectable scientific pedigree, there has been little research on the impact of this approach, known as spaced learning, in real educational settings.
So Kelley and his partners approached the University of Surrey Business School in England, who agreed to carry out a trial to see if it worked.
The cohort of 600 business students were divided into three groups. They all covered the same material for a module on advertising, but in markedly different ways: one group had the traditional academic input of lectures and seminars; the second group were self-directed learners, and the third were spaced learners.
For the spaced learners, this meant their hour-long ‘lecture’ involved short bursts of intensive learning, punctuated by “breaks” lasting 10 minutes each where they would complete unrelated tasks, such as trying to copy a Picasso drawing.
After a week, the students were tested, with the test itself being broken into three parts: testing their knowledge acquisition, its application and whether they could extend what they had learned into material that had not been covered in the course.
The results for knowledge acquisition showed that the spaced learners remembered 20% more than students who had the traditional experience, and 23% more than the self-directed learners.
In other words, students who took regular breaks over an hour remembered a fifth more than those who sat through an hour-long lecture.
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