Rest is not idleness
Research shows that your brain doesn’t idle when you take a break. It’s actually hard at work processing our memory and trying to make sense of what we’ve experienced. We have a ‘default mode’ – the state our brain is in that’s usually associated with taking a break or letting our mind wander. Whilst we’re in this mode our brain is actually highly active (Immordino-yang et al, 2012).
This state of rest is highly important for taking all of the information presented to us and consolidating it into an experience that makes sense – it’s how we learn. Beyond simple consolidation, it enables us to engage in ‘divergent thinking’ – the creation of original thoughts and ideas.
But it’s not just beneficial to learning. Taking a break has benefits extend to our wellbeing. It can reduce stress and anxiety, provide us with a necessary energy boost and help us improve our memory. With this in mind, we should be actively encouraging students to take a break and incorporate them into our learning.
Now, there’s different types of breaks – some are restful, some are engaged, and some can be opportunities to build relationships. Let’s explore them.
Learning engaged breaks
Asking students to engage in active breaks enables the stimulation of curiosity, whilst giving the time needed to gather and articulate ideas and arguments.
Provide students with open questions that they can mentally explore during a break. Give the questions a discussion theme so that students can share their thoughts when they return.
Each student considers a topic and creates questions and answers. When students return from the break, they are paired with one other for discussion. This provides a good basis for discussion when brought back to the group.
Variation on the above. Pose an open question and ask students to come up with their best answer – they can do this during the break. When they return pair them up and get them to agree their best answer. Pairs then become fours, etc until you’ve got a small number of distinct groups that can provide a basis for class-wide debate.
One Minute Paper
Typically asks students to answer two questions: 1) what was the most important thing you learned today and 2) what question is answered? Questions can be amended to suit the subject area. Promotes active listening in students and provides a basis for the lecturer to correct misconceptions and carry out deeper discussion. Can be used at the end of a class, or during a break before moving onto the next area.
Provide students with a series of questions that they can answer during the break. These should be quick and focus on key concepts rather than assessment-style questions. You could ask students to consider a problem for their unique perspective, how an approach could be applied in their industry, or geographic location. Consider making the break a bit longer so that students have a bit longer to ponder their answers – as well as take an actual rest.
"Watch this video"
Curate or create – it doesn’t matter which. Prepare a short instructional video and ask students to watch it in preparation for the next session or segment. Provide some structure for students on what they should consider whilst watching. What will you discuss when they’re back in the room?
An opportunity to build relationships
Not every learning experience is about the content. Building relationships amongst students is just as important. When isolation becomes the norm, we have to create our own opportunities to get to know each other.
Interactive Coffee Break: We’re regularly using break-out rooms for learning activities. Make use of them for social activities. You could let them speak freely, give them a topic, or make use of these examples:
Common Ground: Put the students into small groups or pairs and ask them to list as many things as possible they have in common in a set amount of time. The group with the longest list wins!
Rapid Fire Teams: Randomly assign the students into pairs in breakout rooms and have them complete a task together in 2 minutes: create a “secret handshake” based on their hometown, a “touchdown dance” based on a recent victory, or a nickname based on a childhood story.
Alien Invasion: Divide up the students and tell them that aliens have landed. Each group has to create 5 simple drawings to explain what the School or their employers do so the aliens will understand. Share the images and look for common themes from group to group.
Letter Hunt: Put the students into breakout rooms and give them all 5 minutes to find an object for every letter of the alphabet (a - apple, b - book, etc.). One person on each group will write the objects down. The group will have to communicate well to prevent overlap and get creative on some of the letters
Random Questions: Pick a question at random for students to discuss and share their answers. A good ice breaker for people who haven’t met yet. You could ask:
- If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
- What’s your favourite season?
- Which historical figure would you want to meet?
- What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever visited?
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
- What has been the best day of your life so far?
- What do you want people to remember you for?
- What has been most influential in your life so far?
The list goes on and on, but each question focuses on getting to know someone. That's what's important.
Don't forget the power of an actual break.
Learning is hard work. Providing active breaks give students a good scaffold to engage with the content, consolidate and generate ideas. But students also need to rest. Don’t underestimate the power of just giving them 10 minutes.
Advise them to step away from the computer.
Tell them to go and do some exercise, grab a drink, do something else – doesn’t matter what, just something that isn’t more of the same.