Remote learning can be challenging for anyone.
Spending more hours than you’re used to on your computer can be a real drag. Plus, trying to schedule productive working time at home brings a new set of variables all by itself.
But there is a way you can rise to the challenge by – get this -taking more breaks!
While the classroom is designed specifically for learning and to minimize distractions, a lot of your normal routine gets tossed out the window when you do this from home.
It’s kind of like those late night tv commercials that say – “Don’t try this at home.”
So, when you’re eating breakfast and writing out your assignments at the same time, it’s almost impossible to focus with a million possible other distractions staring you in the face.
Luckily, though, there is a very simple answer to your dilemma – take more breaks, but do it based on brain research.
It will make you far more productive and help rewire your brain, learning and memory as you adjust to remote learning.
Why Does Taking More Breaks Help You Improve Remote Learning?
Note that taking more breaks based on brain science does not mean spending more time on your gaming console or on social media. This is not an effective way to take breaks.
First, let’s take a look at why brain-based learning breaks are so important for learning to occur.
When you are studying or learning something new, your brain is using what is called its “working memory.”
However, your working memory is limited.
Once it gets past its limit, (which is just a few items – Miller’s early research says 7 items, and others say 5 to 9) you are not going to absorb, understand or process what you are learning beyond this limit.
You are very likely to forget what was in your working memory when you try focusing for long periods of time.
This is because repetition and review are an essential part of learning.
You need to commit what is in your working memory into your long-term memory for the information to stick there.
For example, have you ever forgotten someone’s name, or their phone number, or a date, seconds after hearing it for the first time?
Your working memory might not have been overwhelmed at the time, but you’re still likely to have forgotten it.
Even if you wrote it down in a notebook or typed it up in your phone, you still have only copied down what you heard and won’t really be able to remember it – unless you consciously repeat it to yourself.
This is important, because when you repeat and review something you have already learned, your brain builds on the information and makes the memory of it stronger.
When you learn something, your brain creates connections or pathways between its cells (called neurons) where this information is kept.
By repeating the information, the neurons making up that pathway continue to activate, and this makes that connection stronger and longer lasting.
According to John Sweller, a leading learning science researcher, “We can’t hold information for more than about 20 seconds without repeating it to ourselves.”
This gives you an idea of the finite nature of your working memory.
So how do you work on improving your working memory, and making sure what you are learning gets transferred to your long-term memory?
If you guessed by taking breaks, you’re right!
When you take a break, and your brain isn’t actively focusing on what you were learning, it is “wandering”, and still active.
In this “default mode” your brain is reviewing what it learned, making connections with existing information, creating associations or connections between all the information it holds.
This is an extremely necessary part of learning, because brain science proves that one of the ways the brain learns and remembers best is through making associations or connecting the information up with what it already knows.
Thankfully, although working memory is limited, taking a short break of 5 minutes after a 20-30-minute learning session is enough to restore working memory back to full charge.
So the big question is how can you take more effective breaks during remote learning?
Here are 7 ways to improve remote learning with more breaks.
7 Ways to Improve Remote Learning with More Breaks
1. Chunk Your Learning and Raise Your Dopamine Levels
It’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing all the studying you have to get through and feeling completely overwhelmed by the workload.
This creates anxiety and slows you down because your brain is stressed, confused and definitely not in the right mode to learn.
On the other hand, breaking up your learning into 20-30-minute sessions, followed by a short 5-minute break, is a brain science proven method of more effective learning.
Not only does this help your working memory recover and refresh while letting what you learned settle and consolidate in your long-term memory, breaking your tasks down into smaller tasks can help keep you motivated.
You read about how facing a big task and trying to get through it in one-go can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing – it also demotivates you, as you struggle to get through.
On the other hand, when you take a big task and break it down into several smaller tasks, you tick off more items on your to-do list.
And every time you tick off something on your to-do list, you experience a sense of accomplishment.
This is because the mesolimbic pathway of your brain, also known as the reward pathway, lights up when you achieve something, like completing a task.
The neurotransmitter dopamine spikes up in your system, helping you experience that sense of satisfaction and reward.
And because it’s such an enjoyable feeling, your brain wants to chase it again.
Have you ever wanted to have another piece of dessert right after the first, or wanted to keep playing a game for another level because of how well you did during the first level?
Whether you continue enjoying the dessert or the game, your brain expects that it will experience that same pleasure, because of the same type of dopamine spike in your body.
When you know how to produce that same dopamine spike in your system by chunking your learning, it keeps you motivated to continue learning, by anticipating that same sense of reward from completing a task!
2. Get Some Exercise
Taking the right kind of breaks is important.
What you don’t want to do is to start gaming or scrolling through social media – this distracts your brain and it takes up to 30 minutes to get it back on track.
Instead, get some light exercise in between learning sessions. This can work wonders for your focus, memory and learning.
Even a short brisk walk around the block, or some simple stretching, gets your blood pumping harder.
And as your circulation speeds up, you get more oxygenated blood to your brain.
Your brain and all its neurons then have extra fuel to work more efficiently.
It can create neural connections faster, and even grow new nerve cells, especially in the part of the brain called the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is a part of your brain’s temporal lobe, and it plays a crucial part in learning and memory.
This is the part of the brain that temporarily holds the information you’re learning, waiting for your brain to create associations with what you already know.
So, the hippocampus is directly involved in the efficiency of your working memory and getting some regular exercise through the day can boost how well it works, along with helping it grow!
A growing healthy hippocampus can counter the effects of anxiety, stress and depression many students are experiencing during remote learning, due to the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the times.
Depression, stress and anxiety can cause the hippocampus to shrink.
Neural growth in the hippocampus thanks to improved physical activity can help put you in a great mood and help you feel better about yourself and your situation, which makes all the difference to your overall well-being, as well as your learning.
This is partly because along with all the nerve cells exercise activates, it also activates the neurons firing off dopamine molecules, as well as other neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins.
These work together to keep you in a great mood, clear your head, improve your cognitive functioning and speed, as well as keeping you motivated to learn!
When you get back to learning after a break doing some light exercise, you’ll notice the difference in how much more focused you are, and how much faster you’re able to absorb and process information!
3. Focus Your Breathing
You might have heard lots of people recommend meditation as a great way to tackle nerves and clear your mind, but do you know the science-backed benefits of meditation?
Meditation can include focused breathing and scientifically speaking, this type of breathing has a near-magical ability to soothe your nerves and put you in the best frame of mind to focus and learn.
Your sympathetic nervous system regulates your fight or flight response.
When you’re stressed out and anxious, this system is active, and you’ll experience your breathing going shallow, your palms sweating, heart beating faster, muscles all rigid and tense, etc.
Clearly not the best state to learn effectively, right?
Out of all those reactions, breathing is the one you can consciously control, and this lets you flip the switch on these reactions and reverse all these effects.
When you breathe slowly and deeply, you stimulate something called the vagus nerve – this is the longest cranial nerve in your body that runs from your brain to your abdomen.
This nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays the opposite role to the sympathetic nervous system.
In other words, the change in your breathing triggers a chain reaction through this system, and it slows your heart down, cools you off, helps your muscles relax, lowers your blood pressure, etc.
It also helps switch your brain into an alpha brain wave state, which are slower waves (electrical activity between 8 and 12 hertz (HZ)).
The alpha brain wave state is what you’re in when you’ve just woken up after a nice, refreshing night of restful sleep.
Your brain is relaxed and calm and will absorb new information easily.
This is the ideal brain wave state for learning, and by meditating and focusing your breathing, you can put yourself in the perfect state of mind for learning.
So, try this – close your eyes and breathe in deeply and slowly, counting for 4 seconds.
Hold this in, and then exhale slowly for another 4 counts.
Do this several times, focusing inward and letting your mind linger on your breathing and counting the seconds.
It takes your attention away from whatever is causing you stress, while also settling you into the perfect physiological state to be both relaxed but focused, and ready to learn.
4. Do Some Simple Eye Exercises to Reduce Visual Stress from the Computer
Something else you can do to calm yourself during an effective break is called palming, which reduces visual stress.
This is a simple exercise that helps reduce the fatigue your eyes experience while learning.
Because of remote learning, you’re likely spending even more time on a screen than you would do before, since now even classes where you didn’t use a device require you to be in front of a screen.
This can really strain your eyes, and the eyes are one of your most important connections to the brain.
They form a direct feedback route through which you’re inputting a lot of what you’re learning.
The eyes also play a crucial role in forming and creating long-term memory because of something called the Eye-Brain Connection – different eye positions help you access different types of memory.
And being able to access your memory on-demand is like a superpower in effective learning.
So, when you take a short break, make sure you’re giving your eyes a break too.
This brings us back to palming, which is a simple exercise of cupping your hands above your eyes, making sure no light gets through, for a couple of minutes.
Don’t press your fingertips or palms on to your eyelids – make sure there’s some space between your eyes and your hands, as otherwise this can worsen the strain you’re feeling.
Doing this while you meditate can help relieve some of the tension in the muscles around your eyes and rejuvenate them.
And keeping your eyes refreshed helps you prevent problems like brain fog, headaches, etc. which can reduce your ability to focus!
5. Take a Quick Nap
When you’ve worked your way through a couple of 20-30-minute sessions, you can reward yourself with a quick nap.
And this isn’t just a period of rest; getting enough sleep is a neuroscience-proven way to optimize your learning and memory.
When you get the proper amount of deep, relaxing sleep, your hippocampus and another part of your brain, the neocortex, stay active.
They work their way through what you learned during the day, process and review them, make sense of them, create associations with what you already know, and start cementing them in your long-term memory.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter learning and realized you only have a fuzzy memory of a lot of what you worked so hard to learn later, this is why.
In fact, plenty of studies show that taking a short nap before work or learning actually improves performance compared to people who don’t get enough rest.
So, if you haven’t had enough sleep, or feel a little tired after getting through enough of the items on your to-do list, take a nap!
You’ll feel refreshed and ready to learn afterwards, especially because you’ll wake up in that alpha brain wave state you read about earlier!
Getting high quality sleep at night is also important in making sure you have a full and productive day of learning and to consolidate what you learned during the day in your long-term memory, for the same reasons.
6. Listen to Music with 60 Beats Per Minute
Another easy and brain-science proven way to shift your brain into its alpha wave state is listening to a specific type of music.
Music in general has a wonderful effect on the brain.
Music that you love triggers your dopamine neurons almost instantaneously.
When you listen to familiar music that you love, it may even release dopamine in anticipation of the parts of the song you really enjoy.
This is why music can quite literally change your mood – whether you’re having a bad day or are feeling a little down, music can get you excited, happy, relaxed, and so on.
A specific type of music, specifically acoustic music without any lyrics, following a beat pattern of 60 beats per minute, switches your brain into the alpha brain wave state.
In this state, with the dopamine neurons firing, and other neurotransmitters like the happiness hormone, serotonin, circulating in your system, you feel motivated, uplifted, relaxed and focused.
You can not only listen to this type of music while taking a break exercising or meditating or simply laying back relaxing, but this type of music also works wonderfully while you are learning.
The calming and melodious nature of this specific type of music, which often includes classical baroque pieces, keeps your brain in the optimum state of learning without distracting you, as lyrical or excitable pieces would.
7. Stay Hydrated
Your breaks are the perfect time to go get a drink of water.
It’s an easy enough thing to forget but knowing when you take a break might also serve as a reminder to go grab a glass of water and help you make sure you stay hydrated.
Though a simple and overused piece of advice, drinking enough water is imperative for better learning and your overall health.
Did you know that the brain is made up of 75% water?
Naturally, then, it needs to stay hydrated in order to continue functioning in your best interest.
In fact, a vast body of scientific literature continue to show that when the brain is dehydrated, it can damage your cognitive functioning, motor skills, ability to learn and recall, and even your mood!
You might feel irritable or unmotivated, tired and sluggish, experience headaches and brain fog, and struggle to learn or remember anything.
So, staying properly hydrated helps your brain stay working in the best way it possibly can.
With these 7 ways to improve remote learning with more breaks, I hope you have the strategies you need to make the most of your time and your learning as you study at home.
Which of these tips has made the biggest different to your remote learning success?
Write in and let me know!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, such as Total Recall Learning™.
Her superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books and is also a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!