Brain breaks give students the opportunity to double-down on their knowledge and skills as they proceed through the learning process. To use brain breaks effectively, instructors should schedule them every 20-25 minutes in lectures. These easy-to-implement ideas give professors a number of ways to track progress and ensure they are addressing gaps in student learning as they arrive.

What are brain breaks and why do students need them? 

Brain breaks are mental breaks designed to help students stay attentive and focused during periods of instruction. They provide opportunities for students to solidify their learning. Brain breaks help re-energize the brain to begin focusing again. Breaks can be mental or physical and can be done wherever learning is taking place, which is particularly beneficial in distance learning environments. They also have the added benefit of providing students with insights into their own wellness and are a fun way to improve self-esteem and self-regulation. 

Why are brain breaks important? 

Brain breaks help students remain focused in class during learning time. They also provide opportunities for students to reinforce their own learning by processing it in a different way. Most students can focus for a length of time that equals their age plus two minutes. For college students, this means around 20 minutes.  These two-to-five-minute brain breaks are great ways to refresh and refocus the brain.

Top Hat’s 2021 Online Teaching Toolkit gives you all the digital tools and resources you need to form an engaging learning environment. Get free access today.

Brain breaks for college students

Bringing it into the real world

Start each new unit or class period with a real-world problem that requires students to think about how they could potentially solve it—interactive digital content helps keep real-world scenarios current and interesting. This approach creates a “curiosity gap” by giving students a preview of what they don’t know, instilling the motivation to want to go further and continue learning. Embedding videos, audio and GIFs about real-world topics help prime students for future learning. It also facilitates the creation of knowledge pathways in the brain by connecting course concepts in different ways.

Energy yawn

After focusing for a long period of time, the brain can feel tired and burnt out. Yawning and other brain break activities can actually encourage the brain to cool down, as it sends additional blood to re-energize the brain. Encourage your students to gently massage the muscles around the joint in their jaws, then drop the bottom jaw drop and open their mouth to yawn. Then, encourage them to try to yawn deeply at least five or six times. This physical activity can help students relieve some restless energy they may be feeling.

Intentional recall

Asking students to recall course concepts from memory allows them to step back and take a look at what they actually know. This can also help strengthen memory and surface gaps in their own knowledge.

After each lecture or activity block, ask students a simple fact-based question. This helps build recall abilities necessary for higher-stakes assessments, like tests, quizzes and exams.

Instructors can use polls, word clouds and fill in the blanks between their slides to gauge student understanding. To prime students for building this skill, it’s important to keep an organized course and a similar structure in each unit and class. Try dividing each class, week or module into short blocks to maintain attention with questions interspersed throughout.

Ear acupressure

This activity can help with focus and short-term memory, and can also help ease a Zoom-induced headache. Have students stand up straight and pinch their right ear lobe with their left hand, thumb in front. Encourage them to cross their right arm over their left and pinch the left ear lobe with their right hand, thumb in front. Then, have students gently squeeze both ear lobes at the same time. Once their hands are on their ears, ask them to place the tip of their tongue on the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. Finally, inhale through your nose 15 times. This movement break helps students expel energy to remain focused on learning. 

Discussing to connect

Integrating questions throughout course content provides students with the chance to consolidate their knowledge as they proceed through the course. These can be more open-ended or opinion-based questions. 

Short answer questions or discussion threads can also be embedded in presentations or between textbook chapters. This way, students can take turns sharing what thye’ve learned with their peers. These questions also allow students to connect the recently learned concepts to previous knowledge they’ve learned in the course or program. Insights from these questions also provide educators with the opportunity to identify gaps or misunderstandings in student learning.

Meditation and mindfulness

Classmates who practice mindful meditation and deep breathing together every day are more likely to trust and support one another. Consider mindful breathing as an easy-to-implement brain break ideas. This activity is great for bringing the mind back to the importance of regulating our breath. 

Sitting, standing or in a yoga pose of their choice, ask your students to breathe deeply and slowly for around five minutes. Ask them to count to three on the inhale and three again on the exhale. You may suggest they put their hands on their stomachs to feel the air as it moves in and out. This can help regulate energy levels and focus.

You can also ask students to complete a more physical brain break of their own choosing such as tossing a beach ball, doing limb wiggles, finishing a series of jumping jacks or pushups, or running on the spot for a minute.

Back to basics

As you progress through the course, it’s important to return to the fundamentals to ensure students have a strong foundation of knowledge. Skill-testing questions on past units interspersed with more recent reading assignments or slide decks ensure that students maintain the knowledge they learned earlier in the course as they continue to build on their understandings. Top Hat’s question banks from the Catalog keep it organized all in one platform—allowing you to streamline your course.

Implementing these small changes in your classes gives students the opportunity to reconstruct their understanding of course concepts in different ways over and over again. Instructors also get the chance to uncover key insights into student understanding as well as where they are struggling.

Top Hat allows you to monitor student performance metrics and attendance, all in one place. Learn more about our automated data-driven insights here.