Length of Break Matters in Learning, Study Finds

January 9, 2018 Updated: January 9, 2018

The old saying “practice makes perfect” holds true for most things. But like all activities that require focus, be it studying, practicing an instrument, or playing a sport, we need regular breaks to keep from getting burnt out.

New research into this area has found that successful learning may depend on the length of your breaks. The findings suggest that there are limits to how much information the brain retains if practice sessions are too short and interrupted.

Human perception was the focus of the study, carried out by a team including David F. Little, a postdoctoral fellow at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and it is believed to provide the first evidence that significant practice breaks influence perceptual learning.

The task chosen for the study was to identify differences in sounds. Forty participants were asked to distinguish between the pitches of two tones or to hear differences in speech syllables that are indistinguishable to English speakers but meaningful in other languages. For example, the combination “mba,” which appears in Thai and Hindi, sounds like “ba” to native English speakers.

Subjects were divided into groups of eight people who performed tasks under different conditions. Group one practiced for 40 minutes without breaks. Group two practiced for 40 minutes with a 30-minute break after the first 20 minutes. Group three practiced for 20 minutes only. And the last group practiced for 40 minutes with five breaks of six minutes each.

Participants were given hundreds of rounds to learn the differences in pitch between two tones, which they practiced for seven to nine days.

The researchers found that the subjects needed sufficient practice without taking long breaks in order to retain what they learned. The most effective learning took place with the last group in the study, who took five 6-minute breaks.

Group two—who had a 30-minute break in the middle—did not retain what they learned in their 40-minute practice session.

“When learning a new skill, you can waste a lot of time and effort, to little benefit, if you take even a 30-minute break before you have practiced enough,” said Little.

The researchers say that their findings suggest the brain has a transient holding area for perceptual memories, and after a certain threshold, they are sent to long-term storage that lasts days. They hope that their study sheds some light on the learning of perpetual skills, such as ear-training for musicians and visual training for clinicians who read diagnostic tests such as X-rays or MRIs, as well as for people recovering from hearing loss.

Devon Andre has a bachelor’s of forensic science from the University of Windsor and completed a juris doctor at the University of Pittsburgh. This article was originally published on BelMarraHealth.com.