Study Aids: Taking Breaks at Optimal times

Make sure that you take breaks at optimal times.

The reason for this is based on two, well known, learning principles; The Primacy and Recency Effects and The Zeigarnik Effect, which show that if you don't take breaks you will learn less in a given period of time.

The Primacy and Recency Effects are the observed improvement in memory for things that were shown first and last during a given learning period.

If you simply learn continuously your retention of the information you are trying to learn drops steadily. However, just before and just after you take a short break your memory for an item is much better. Therefore, if you take short breaks, at something like 30 to 60 minute intervals, you will find you will remember more. So, if you take time out while studying the amount you will actually learn increases.

For further interesting information - The Forgetting Curve

While still being hotly debated, The Zeigarnik Effect, is used in a variety of contexts. It states that if you are half way through learning something and are then interrupted in what you are doing, you will remember what you were doing better than if you had completed whatever the learning task.

Bluma Zeigarnik first discovered this effect in the 1920's while sipping coffee in a coffee shop. She noted that a waiter she was observing was able to recall endless numbers of orders unless he had completed them!

Ultimately she proved in a paper (1927) that unfinished tasks were remembered approximately twice as well as completed tasks.

This work was replicated by a series of Authors who believed in the concept. One of the defining reviews was by Van Bergen (1968) who noted that in particular it appeared that The Zeigarnik Effect was more likely to take place when the student was highly motivated to learn, or complete, the task at hand. Ultimately, however, she was apparently not sure if this was, or was not, a real effect.

So, when it is time for a break, don't finish what you are doing before taking the break, just take the break!

An upshot of this for teachers is that leaving students hanging or wanting more at the end of a day's lesson should facilitate better learning

What should I do during my breaks?

When it's time for a break, do something entirely different, so long as it is not watching TV. For example, go for a walk, do a little light exercise, stretch, listen to music, or have a snack.

RecallPlus will remind you when to take breaks. You may alter the timing in the program to suit your needs.

Another handy hint is to study your weaker topics when you are freshest after a break.


Zeigarnik B. 1927. "Das behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen." Psychologische Forschung 9:1-85.
Van Bergen, A. (1968). Task Interruption. North-Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam.

"Primacy and Recency in Nonword Repetition" - Online Reference
An Explanation for why the Primacy and Recency effects take place
"Memory in Chains: Modeling Primacy and Recency Effects in Memory for Order" - Online Reference

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