It’s generally agreed that the brain requires time to rest and strengthen the memories formed while practising a newly learned skill.
We all know that sleep is an essential component of this memory consolidation. New memories are unstable; they can decay if the information isn't rehearsed.
Researcher Stephanie Mazza found that repeated practice and sleep both improve long-term memory retention.
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This is most likely because of the way that different parts of the brain communicate when we sleep, building and strengthening the new neural connections necessary for later recall.
But the actual mechanisms involved are not well understood.
Some new studies suggest that wakeful resting may be just as useful as sleep when it comes to learning new things. Marlene Bönstrup and her co-researchers found that taking short breaks after learning a new skill leads to the rapid consolidation of the new information.
Neuroscience and learning
Researchers recorded the brain waves of right-handed volunteers using a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography.
Participants were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hand for 10 seconds, take a 10-second break and then repeat the trial cycle, alternating practice and rest 35 more times.
As expected, the speed at which participants correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trials and then levelled off by around the eleventh cycle.
But their brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions, implying that more learning was taking place when the participants were resting.
In fact, following closer examination, improvements made during the rest periods added up to the overall gains made that day.
Furthermore, gains were much greater than those seen after volunteers returned the next day to try again, leading the researchers to conclude that early breaks were just as important as practice.
Brain waves indicated that volunteers were consolidating memories during the rest period, evidenced by the size of the waves (known as beta rhythms) that correlated with improvements the volunteers made during the rest periods.
These are fascinating conclusions, but the study only looked at performance when people were learning a very simple motor task. All learning is not the same and occurs through different processes involving different types of memory.
Learning your times tables or the causes of the First World War, for example, isn’t the same as changes in behaviour that take place as a result of stimulus-response associations and other forms of conditioning.
So it’s unclear from this particular study whether or not these short breaks would have the same impact on other types of learning. That said, there is plenty of past research on the subject of downtime.
The notion that rest is an important aspect of learning isn’t new. More than a century ago, Georg Elias Müller and Alfons Pizecker realised that learning doesn’t always create permanent memories and that it takes time to consolidate what is learned into long-term memory (Müller and Pizecker are actually credited with coining the term "consolidation").
They found that rest periods of up to six minutes after information is encoded (transferred into a construct that can then be stored) can help to ensure that it becomes permanent.
More recently, Markus Martini and his co-researchers confirmed that while short breaks of around 10 minutes can aid memory retention, distraction after learning can weaken it.
Delayed free recall
Similarly, Michaela Dewar and her team found that people perform better on tests of delayed free recall (tests taken after a delay where participants can recall the learned items in any order) if learning is followed by a short wakeful rest. Perhaps the most intriguing conclusion was that intentional rehearsal was less important than the time given over to consolidation.
The idea that taking breaks can make long-term memories more permanent has wide-ranging implications for teaching and learning. We know that previously learned information can be negatively affected by new information we learn later (a concept known as interference), so it would make sense that some kind of down-time after learning a new concept could be useful.
Of course, ensuring that students have a 10-minute rest break after learning every new concept simply isn't practical, so we have to look at alternative ways in which the evidence can be used in the classroom.
Spaced learning and exam revision
One potential way of aiding memory consolidation is through a technique known as spaced learning (or distributed practice). If the aim is to aid consolidation while reducing interference, it’s necessary to ensure that there is a sufficient gap between learning the concept and it becoming a permanent fixture within long-term memory.
Consideration also has to be given to ensuring that similar information isn’t going to interfere with what had been learned.
Often, study sessions and revision time are spent trying to learn or relearn as much information in the shortest possible time (referred to as massed practice).
This leaves little time for new information to be properly consolidated and can also risk interference. By spacing study sessions (leaving a significant gap between each learning episode) interference is reduced and consolidation improved.
Practising a new skill, therefore, is only part of a much larger story and it's often what happens in the minutes and hours after the new material has been learned that partially determines whether or not the information will be remembered.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the co-author, with Jonathan Firth, of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom. He tweets @marcxsmith