Rest is increasingly recognised as important for performance, wellbeing and learning. Rest breaks can happen over a range of timespans, such as a holiday taken over many weeks, sleep overnight, a walk in nature over a few hours, or getting up from your desk for a coffee break taking just few minutes. In workplaces, methods like the Pomodoro method – setting a timer to take a short 5 minute break after 25 minutes of concentrated work – are increasingly popular for reminding us to refresh. In higher education settings, there’s been long-standing interest in how to counter declines in student attention. For example, Ruhl and Suritsky (1995) found recorded lectures that incorporated three two-minute breaks resulted in better recall of key concepts and more complete lectures notes for students with learning disabilities, compared to providing a lecture outline, or providing both rest breaks and an outline.
Short breaks to refresh our ability to concentrate can take many forms. Since the 1980s, there’s been increasing evidence that being in nature restores attention. Interestingly, these effects seem to happen even when exposure to nature happens by watching videos of natural scenes, or even just viewing still photos of forest (e.g., Berman et al., 2008). Could such “virtual nature” rest breaks help refresh the attention of students learning difficult cognitive skills, over and above the benefits of a simple “do-nothing” break?
A new University of Sydney study conducted by my Education Honours students Katherine Muscat and Ryan Naylor has found both unstructured rest breaks and “virtual nature” rest breaks can help restore attention and enhance learning. In this study, published in Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 72 Australian university students first completed a difficult mental mathematics pre-test under speeded testing conditions, in order to exhaust students’ attentional resources (Ginns, Muscat, & Naylor, 2023). Students in the control (no rest) group then continued straight on to study a short lesson on how to mentally multiply two two-digit numbers (e.g., 34 x 67). The second group of students took a five minute unstructured rest break, with a simple count-down on a computer screen showing how much of the break time was left. The third group (nature-based rest) watched a first-person perspective video of a walk in an Australian rainforest for five minutes.
All students then completed a “directed attention” short survey on the extent to which they experienced distracting thoughts during the mental mathematics lesson, responding to questions such as “My attention was directed towards things other than the lesson” and “I found it hard to maintain my concentration for more than a short time”. Lastly, students completed a 20-question problem-solving test to see how well they could apply the mental mathematics strategy.
Comparing results across the three groups, students in the unstructured rest group reported higher average levels of directed attention than those in the no-rest control group. On the problem-solving test, both the unstructured rest group (53% correct) and the nature-based rest group (60% correct) outperformed the control group (38% correct). While the nature-based rest group solved more problems on average than the unstructured rest group, the difference between the two rest groups was not statistically significant. While these findings came from a “laboratory” study, we argue they have substantial implications for both students and staff in higher education.
For students, these results indicate the value of planning to take brief breaks during extended, cognitively demanding study sessions. We are “agnostic” up to a point about the type of rest break you could take, but here are some suggestions:
- Try just “doing nothing”, e.g., daydreaming. (This is basically what participants in the “unstructured rest” condition did.)
- Another alternative is some form of breathing practice. “Controlled breathing” routines such as box breathing or the 4-7-8 method can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the “relaxation response”.
- If you have access to the World Wide Web, the results of our study suggest watching videos of natural scenes also support subsequent learning.
- A short 5-minute break is also a good amount of time for getting up and moving around. Some brief, intense activity such as star-jumps, push-ups or squats can refresh lagging attention (for a school-based study, see Ma et al., 2015).
- It may be tempting to reach for your phone and check out social media. There’s now substantial evidence for the negative impacts of “endless scroll” apps on the ability to focus (for an excellent overview, see Hari, 2022); try the above alternatives instead.
For teaching staff:
- All of the above suggestions apply for managing your own attention in support of “deep work” (Newport, 2016).
- Consider how you might build in rest breaks in your classes. Even a 1-2 minute break in which you encourage students to get up out of their seats to move, and/or have a stretch, could make a real difference to flagging attention levels.
- Alternatively, you might like to lead the class in a short breathing exercise. For example, this 1 minute YouTube video combines a box-breathing prompt with a nature-based video.
Featured image: Adobe Stock photo
About the author
Associate Professor Paul Ginns
Dr Paul Ginns is Associate Professor in Educational Psychology in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney, teaching foundational and elective educational psychology units across undergraduate and postgraduate education degrees. His research focuses on educational implications of human cognitive architecture and embodied cognition, motivation and engagement, and creativity.