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Learn to learn: why we need study breaks

Teaching pupils about the diffuse and focused modes of the brain is essential for learning

Why we should take a study break

Do you know that the brain has two modes for learning? The “focused” mode is activated when we pay close attention to something. The “diffuse” mode is activated when we’re more relaxed and not purposefully focusing on anything. We need to utilise both in the classroom, making study breaks an important part of learning. 

Watch this short video before you continue reading. 

By using a pinball machine analogy for the brain, this video allows us to better understand how learning involves going back and forth between the two different modes. When we grow frustrated in our learning, it’s time to step back and allow the diffuse mode to go to work.

This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.

Kids get frustrated in the classroom when they can’t figure something out. If this happens too often, such students can quickly lose their enthusiasm and can’t help but look at other, faster learners with more “natural talent” (even though some of these other children are also secretly struggling).

As frustration builds, kids can end up hating a topic. It’s a vicious circle but it can be avoided.

Struggling? Take a break 

It’s important to help children understand that it’s perfectly normal not to understand something difficult the first time they tackle it. And they also need to realise that if they have to take breaks as they struggle, and learn over several (or even many) days, they can actually learn the subject more deeply than the apparent superstars.

But just telling your students to take a study break doesn’t help much. If kids don’t understand why their struggles arise and why study breaks are needed, your advice can sound like well-meaning, contradictory fluff. After all, aren’t teachers and parents always talking about how important it is to be persistent? 

The key is to explain how the brain works to your students before they begin to get frustrated. 

Flipping between modes

Thus, you want to make children aware of the back-and-forth nature of learning as the brain toggles between the focused and the diffuse modes.  

Teaching about this process before the frustration arises can serve as a sort of vaccination. When frustration does kick in, you can tell your student, “Ah, hah—it’s time to take a diffuse mode break!” And they’ll know what you mean.

Incidentally, learning to detect that frustrating feeling of “my mental wheels are spinning uselessly” can also help students avoid wasting time on a difficult problem on a test. Teaching children to let go and move on, and return later to difficult problems or concepts, is an important skill that helps them have time for the easier problems they can solve.

This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.


Notes by Professor Barbara Oakley and ESIC Business and Marketing School. Videos reproduced with kind permission of the Arizona State University and Professor Barbara Oakley.

For more information, see Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.

Illustration of focused and diffuse modes, courtesy of Oliver Young.


  • de Bono, Edward (1970) Lateral Thinking. NY: Harper Perennial.
  • Oakley, Barbara Ann (2014) A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science. New York, NY: Penguin-Random House.
  • Oakley, Barbara and Terrence Sejnowski with Alistair McConville (2018) Learning How to Learn: Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School without Spending All Your Time Studying; a Guide for Kids and Teens New York, NY: Penguin-Random House.


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