Teachers need to give students breaks during class

October 12, 2020 — by Audrey Mah

Short breaks during class will increase students’ level of engagement

My head and eyes ached as I realized I had spaced out for half of my last class and not absorbed a thing.

This phenomenon has grown all the more frequent due to online schooling. An easy fix: Give students breaks during class time.

Many teachers utilize their synchronous class time to lecture or present videos and slideshows for the whole 75 minutes. But after more than 30-40 minutes of such classes, it’s easy for students to slip into thinking that they are watching a video and not a live instruction class that can’t be rewound. 

Teachers themselves often let their lessons drag on for longer than students are willing to listen because they feel pressed for time and cannot see students’ body language to tell when they are losing focus.

Yet, no matter how fascinating the content of a lecture may be, sitting through a 75-minute Zoom lesson is not effective if the students lose focus halfway through class. 

This attention lapse is not just the usual daydreaming found in in-person school. Paying attention on Zoom requires significantly more energy from students because they feel pressure to actively look like they are paying attention. On Zoom, everyone in the room can see each other’s video screens, which means if one person is not paying attention, everyone else can clearly see it.

Plus, having to stare intently at a screen for long periods of time is just plain exhausting for the eyes and mind. Sitting in the same position, hunched over a laptop for extended periods of time only adds to the weariness.

When students are unable to focus in class, they can’t absorb the material, which means they are less prepared for tests or projects. To make up for this, they will have to work on their own time to relearn the class content.  

In an increasingly digitized world, students’ attention spans are shorter than in previous generations. (There’s a reason Crash Course videos are always under 20 minutes — anything longer just doesn’t work!)

When teachers offer students a 1-2 minute break halfway through class, they let students relax for a moment and come back better able to focus. In these breaks, students can use the restroom, stand up and stretch or grab a glass of water. Better yet, they have the opportunity to give their eyes, posture and mind a relief from the physical and mental stress of focusing on a computer screen.  

Physics teacher Kirk Davis frequently gives his students short breaks between activities, and the difference these breaks create is striking. These precious minutes, however few they are, allow students to re-energize. For instance, I usually take the time to gather my thoughts and do a quick stretch before returning to class feeling invigorated and engaged in the class content.

Just a short breather like this can help both everyone come back refreshed and ready to complete the lesson.