Take a Break! The Science Behind the Study Break

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Take a Break! The Science Behind the Study Break

Do you ever think about how little you actually remember from school, regardless how much you may have studied and how well you may have done?  I know I certainly can’t recite the periodic table of elements or Lady Macbeth’s famous monologue like I used to.  So what’s the deal? Well, let’s back up a few years to when we actually did the studying.  Surely we’re all familiar with the stereotypical procrastinator who can’t seem to buckle down and study for a big test until the last possible second.  Wouldn’t it make sense to study the material right before the test, so that it’s fresh in your memory?

Well, as is often the case in cognitive psychology, and as our friends over at Cognitive Daily and We’re Only Human have blogged about in the past, the results are mixed.  

What Does Science Say About Study Breaks?

One well-known study by Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, and Rohrer (2006) found that students who studied new vocabulary for a total of ten trials performed better on a quiz than those who only studied for five trials, and this advantage held up when they were re-quizzed one week later.  This makes sense – the more you study, the better you do, right? Well, here’s where it gets tricky.  When the students were re-quizzed again after three weeks, this advantage disappeared.  This led the researchers to delve further into the question of the study break.  Did these students simply wait too long between studying and taking the quiz?

Cepeda et al. (2006) repeated the study but this time introduced study breaks between study sessions, from as little as 5 minutes up to a whole month.  What they found was that, in general, the longer you want to retain the knowledge, the longer your study break should be.  For instance, students who took a one-day break did the best when tested after ten days, whereas those who took a whole month did best after six months.  Thus, it appears that cramming all our studying into one session actually diminishes long-term learning.

At this point, some of you are probably thinking, so what? If the big test is tomorrow and you only need the information for that test, then what’s the harm in studying your butt off the night before?  Well, in some cases, such as a high-stakes exam or some other requirement that you’re not particularly interested in, cramming may not be so bad after all.  But if you’re a motivated adult learner hoping to improve your vocabulary, pick up a new language, or even re-learn some of the material that has diminished since high school…then take a break!

One great tool for learning in those strange little chunks of time on the bus, waiting for class, or sitting in an office is Brainscape! Check out all the Brainscape apps for learning languages, test prep, science, and dozens of other subjects in the marketplace!


Cepeda, N., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354-380.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .


Amanda 10 years ago

Interesting blog topic. I do find that, even one semester later, I have trouble remember all the little facts I memorized for a class. I also have found that when I re-visit notes from a class I've taken in a previous semester that it really helps me re-learn it faster and retain the knowledge longer...which makes me feel like all the money and time I spent at school was worth it!
I know that Brainscape's CBR algorithm determines when you see a particular card again in the course of the deck. So one question I have is how Brainscape might help its learners take "study breaks" and alert them to revisit an old deck of vocab cards? Because, whether or not I like to admit it, it is not often that I take it upon myself to go revisit a whole semester of notes.

Andrew Cohen 10 years ago

Great question, Amanda. It is often easy for us to save old course notebooks with high hopes that one day we will actually go back and review them. But let's be honest - we never actually do!

The good news is that Brainscape actually does make it easier to revisit old decks after "study breaks" of any length. Not only can a user click on the individual deck to review it, but on our iPhone app(s) (and soon on the web), it is easy to launch an all-encompassing "Random Mix" or "Progressive Study" for your entire Library - with the single click of a button. These types of study mixes teach you new content while continuing to refresh flashcards from older decks, in a pattern of repetition determined by both how long it's been since you've seen the flashcards, and how well you knew those flashcards back in the day. With these easy features we really have no excuse for forgetting the critical concepts from past courses.

Amanda Moritz 10 years ago

After using Brainscape to learn Spanish for the past two weeks, I'm finding that I am a pretty good determiner of when I need to review the decks I've completed and am no longer working on.

Luke 8 years ago

Do you create your own cards or do you purchase the paid ones?

Amanda Moritz 8 years ago


Hameed Khan 7 years ago

Hey nice topic,I usually study for 10 minutes and talking break for 5 minutes,So is that OK.Please answer. thanks...

Erik 7 years ago

This is so hard to learn Spanish

Brainscape Info 7 years ago

Hi Erik,

We understand learning a new language can be extremely difficult! Just stick with it. Brainscape is designed to utilize a Confidence Based Repetition system and IT WORKS! Your hard work will pay off in the end, even if it seems like an impossible task at the moment. Just keep at it and before you know it, you'll be speaking Spanish with the best of them!

Best of luck,

Randi Skelton

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