Taking breaks while studying helps you remember more, new study finds

Proof that cramming for exams DOESN’T work: Taking breaks while studying helps you remember more, say scientists

  • German scientists discover taking breaks while studying helps us with memory 
  • New research from Max Planck Institute says cramming for exams does not work
  • They observed mice’s ability to find their way through a maze, and found longer breaks between learning phases produced better results for mice’s memory
  • The phenomenon is known as the ‘spacing effect’ – as information is more easily embedded into long-term memory when learning sessions are interspersed

Cramming for exams does not work, as a new scientific study shows taking breaks during studying helps us remember more easily. 

New research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany is the first to prove the benefits of taking longer breaks while cramming for exams.

German scientists used observations of mice to prove the benefits of the phenomenon known as the ‘spacing effect’, which says information is more effectively encoded into long-term memory when learning sessions are interspersed with long breaks.

The phenomenon is known as the ‘spacing effect’, which suggests information is more effectively encoded into long-term memory when learning sessions are interspersed with large breaks. 

The scientists, from the Max Planck Institute, published their study in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

German scientists from the Max Planck Institute (above) showed taking breaks during studying helps us remember more easily

Scientists from the German research organisation observed the brains of mice and found the optimal length of breaks between learning was between 30 and 60 minutes.

The mice were tasked with finding pieces of chocolate in a maze and proved longer breaks between each exercise strengthened connections in the brain.

The researchers analysed the mice’s brains as they tried to navigate the same maze three times to find the chocolate, which was kept in the same location, and the duration of each break between the attempts was varied.

In the short term, longer breaks seemed to hinder the mice’s ability to remember where the chocolate was.

But the following day the scientists found the longer the breaks were between learning phases, the better the mice’s memory was.

Upon closer inspection the research team found this was because after longer breaks the brain would reactivate similar neural pathways – whereas shorter breaks saw the brain starting again and using new, different clusters of neuron activity.

The researchers analysed the mice’s brains as they tried to navigate the same maze three times to find the chocolate, which was kept in the same location, and the duration of each break between the attempts was varied

The research team concluded: ‘Our data show that trial spacing increases the strength of connectivity within the [neuron] ensemble, supposedly making memory more robust and increasing the probability of memory retrieval.

‘Our findings provide the first direct description of how activity of the same neuronal population during memory encoding and retrieval mediates the spacing effect, a phenomenon originally described over a century ago.’

The study was published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

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