Shirola: Professors should include much-needed breaks in long classes

Wesley Shirola, Columnist

As someone who studies social sciences, most of my classes are 80 minutes or longer. It doesn’t seem like all that much time in hindsight, but those of us who have taken a class of that length know that it is often unbearable. I’d go so far as to say that it can be pure torture. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who had this issue. The more of these classes I take, however, the more certain I am that I’m not the only one who struggles to make it through 80-minute classes.

This epiphany came to me after observing my fellow classmates in a philosophy course last quarter. For the most part, students would make it through the first 40 minutes or so relatively engaged with the professor. Questions were asked, comments were offered, and pens were put to paper. But I began to notice that the second 40 minutes were an entirely different story. Some students would be on their phones. Others would be staring at the ceiling in a trance-like state. And still others would be sound asleep, peacefully dreaming without so much as a care in the world.

Alas, some of us, myself included, would still be paying attention to the lecture. But, were we really? A recent study by Dr. William S. Helton, psychology professor at George Mason University found that focusing our attention for too long can wear us out. In other words, prolonged work appears to be depleting. You begin to fade out and performance declines. Scientists don’t yet know exactly what causes these declines in performance, but according to Helton, the brain “operates as though there’s a ‘mental fuel’ that gets burned up.”

Now, you may be thinking that this is an issue confined to the back few rows of the lecture hall. After all, we all know the stereotypes of the students who call those rows home. However, I’ve noticed these occurrences spread rather uniformly across the classroom.

As you’d suspect, running low on mental fuel can have a huge impact on academic performance. A team of researchers in the UK and Denmark studied standardized test data from Danish public schoolchildren. They found that when tests were given right after a short break, scores improved to a degree equivalent to 19 extra days of school. All of us should know the importance of breaks. After all, we all took the ACT or SAT to get here. Imagine taking those tests without so much as a snack or stretch break. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the score I did without those crucial respites.

I have no doubt professors truly want us to succeed in their classes. But, if they were so dedicated to seeing this become a reality, they wouldn’t force us to sit through their 80-minute classes without even a moment or two to reset and refuel our brains.

I’m already halfway through my sophomore year at Northwestern, yet in all that time, I’ve only had one professor — Susan Hespos in the psychology department, who was very likely aware of the risks of cognitive decline in long classes — that gave us three or four minutes to stand up and relax at the midpoint of the class. As a result, we were more engaged, and the class was more fun.

Charlotte Fritz, a professor in the psychology department at Portland State University in Oregon, says breaks improve our moods, overall well-being and performance capacity. Powering through without a pause does more harm than good. The breaks don’t even have to be long — all it really takes is a few minutes.

It’s evident that short breaks are crucial to academic and professional success. Join with me in calling on all professors of classes 80 minutes or longer to just give us a break. There’s simply no reason not to.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.