OK, you’re back to school and things are ramping up. You’re fresh, you’re motivated, and you are going to study this year! But you might be wondering if you are doing it right or how to study more effectively. When a test is coming up, you may be tempted to stay up all night studying, skip meals, or take your notebook to the dinner table with you. But don’t do it! Especially as the test gets closer, what your brain might really need is a break.
How do you know when you need a study break?
- Have you ever realized that your eyes have been moving back and forth across lines of text for minutes but when you think about it you have no idea what you’ve read?
- Or have you ever woken up in the morning or stepped out of the shower and found that something that was driving you crazy suddenly made total sense?
- Your brain needs rest, including sleep, as well as good nutrition, to build memories and work optimally. That’s why when you have a period of intense studying before a test, it’s extra important to schedule in breaks.
Why take a break when studying?
Your brain is not a muscle but building memory sort of works like building muscle. If you are interested in fitness, or if you paid attention in gym class, you probably have heard that your body needs rest days to repair muscles and strengthen them. That’s why a schedule like lifting weights every other day or taking weekends off from running helps athletes build strength and avoid injury.
And your brain needs those rest breaks to consolidate information. Your brain does a lot of work when you are sleeping and one of those jobs is to store and organize information you learned during the day. Have you ever had a dream about a test coming up? Or dreamed that you were being chased by giant oboe after you auditioned for the orchestra at school? Some scientists think that dreams are one way the brain processes information from the day.
Without enough sleep, your brain has trouble forming new memories and you may make mistakes or lose focus when you do take the test. So sleeping and resting while you are studying is important to help your brain work its best.
When do I need a study break?
When I’m working on a big task (like writing these blog posts), I schedule my breaks. That way, I don’t stop writing when I feel bored or when things get hard. Instead, I know that I’m going to write for 25 minutes at a time (I use – and love – the Pomodoro method for planning demanding brain work) and then I’ll get up for a 5-minute stretch break. If I’m going to work for longer, like a couple of hours, I schedule a longer break, like 30 minutes every two hours.
Some people find it disruptive to have to get up when the timer goes off, so you could set a task goal instead if the timer stresses you out. Take a stack of 15 flashcards and decide to learn them before you get up or stick a bookmark at the end of the chapter you are reading and stop there. Using shorter, more intense, periods of study is one way to study more effectively. It may seem like breaks make the whole process take longer but the real challenge with studying is that if you sit there too long, you get less out of each additional minute of studying. After a certain point, you are just wasting your time.
What’s the best place to take a study break?
I’m a big believer in fresh air for study breaks. If the weather’s nice, take a walk around the yard or at least go open some windows. Even if the weather is cold and snowy, getting a few minutes outside can be refreshing. If you can’t make it outside, think about a place away from your study space where you feel calm. Make sure you get up and walk during your break, even if you feel like you don’t need to yet. Be proactive when you take breaks. Don’t wait until you are stiff and sore and have a headache before you get up to move.
Make sure that the place you pick for your study break isn’t so great that you won’t leave it when the break ends! For example, if your roommates or your whole family are sitting in the living room watching a movie, you probably don’t want to join them on the couch. You don’t want to get sucked into the movie and forget to go back!
What should I do on my study break?
Physical movement – Walk, stretch, do jumping jacks. Studying or reading often causes us muscle strain and fatigue. Moving your body during your break can make you feel more alert and more physically comfortable when you sit back down to study
Eat and drink – Get a healthy snack (think about the protein, fats and healthy carbs your body and brain need for energy first. Don’t always go for something salty and delicious!) and fill up your water bottle. Or go for herbal tea. Try not to overload on caffeine. It will help your focus in the short-term, but too much caffeine can make you feel worse later when it wears off, as well as being dehydrating.
Use the bathroom – This is not something you need to be told, I assume. But while you’re in there, take a minute to run cold water over your wrists or wipe your face or eyes with a cool towel to help your feel more alert.
Fun distraction – It’s so tempting to pick up your phone when you get to break time! After all, if you’ve been following a good study plan, the ringer is off and maybe it’s even tucked away in your bag, so you haven’t looked at it in a long time! But be cautious. It’s so easy to get sucked in to checking social media or texting your friends back and it might be hard to put it away at the end of your break. Also, if you’ve been reading all night in your textbook and notes, more reading on your phone won’t give your eyes and body the rest you need to come back to studying feeling refreshed. You can set a timer for the end of your break time, as long as you are able to put the phone away when it goes off!
How do I end a study break?
- Make sure you do make it back from your break. Use a timer or a helpful friend to keep yourself accountable for sitting back down then the break is over.
- Take a minute to clear your workspace and get everything ready. Throw out any trash, put away the materials you don’t need any more and find that fresh pad of sticky notes you realized you need.
- Check your plan and cross off anything that you’ve finished.
- Decide on your next goal so you know when you will take your next break. Set a timer if you need one.
- Get back to work!
Studying is often a lonely and boring activity. Unless you love the class and material, sitting down your own to learn and review isn’t a favorite task. But keep your goal in mind. Starting now and putting in the time to master this material is going to set you up for success on this test, and in the rest of this course!
Schedule a bigger reward for all your hard work when the test is over or you’ve learned all those Spanish verbs. That way you’ll have something to look forward to like ice cream with your friends, a good movie or some quality time with your favorite video game.
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