Take Breaks to Improve Learning

Cram sessions have been part of the college experience for decades. However, new research suggests that for real learning to occur, students should take breaks instead of working for long blocks of time.

The reason is that the brain can only take in so much information at once. Working memory—a temporary holding place for new information—can absorb just a few items at once, according to Prof. John Sweller, who studies learning science. According to Sweller, humans cannot hold onto new memories for more than 20 seconds without repeating those memories to themselves. Cramming one fact after another just doesn’t work.

Sweller’s research has led him to believe that if students are having trouble understanding a concept or idea when learning, they are likely overloading their working memories. He also found that continually overloading working memory leads to memory lag, or slow processing of new information. Similarly, concentrating on a task for a prolonged period of time does not yield more learning, Sweller’s research suggests, because working memory declines after periods of focused learning.

The good news is that Sweller’s research also found that working memory recovers quickly after students take a break from a mentally taxing task. That’s why it makes sense to take frequent breaks from concentrated effort.

This should be good news for students. Learning how to learn is an essential takeaway from college, and knowing that cramming is an ineffective way to process information can lead to better study strategies.


  1. Think back to a prolonged study session in which you tried to cram a lot of information over a relatively short period of time. How did that work?
  2. What implications do Sweller’s findings have for the way students complete assignments and study?
  3. What changes to your own study strategies can you adopt to improve your learning?

From EdSurgeNews

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