Taking Effective Study Breaks – An Interview with a MaRBLe Student

2024-07-09 by Eva Smits & Niklas Wenzel


I recently finished supervising an excellent MaRBLe bachelor thesis project.

This supervision was truly a joy! And the main reason for this was the student I got to supervise: Eva Smits, currently in her 3rd year of the psychology bachelor at Maastricht University really stepped up and brought her A game.

I knew quickly that this would be a great project, and I got the confirmation along the way… For example, when Eva presented her research to our Lab, leading to a confusion whether she was actually writing her bachelor or already her master thesis (yes, that’s how good it was). Or by seeing the final thesis come together step by step.

It was just a blast!

The cool thing about supervision is that different people with different perspectives come together to investigate the same thing. In our case, I was the supervisor, Eva the student. But beyond this, while Eva took her first steps as a researcher, I could step back into the shoes of a student by observing her dealing with the challenges of the research and thesis writing process. Something that is especially relevant, given the topic that Eva investigated…

Eva’s thesis was about how university students take breaks while studying. She will tell you more about the details herself, but here is what you need to know:

  • Breaks have been shown to be an important predictor of productivity and wellbeing in the workplace.
  • However, there is little research on how university students take breaks when studying by themselves.
  • Yet, this is crucial because
    • a) we know that students sometimes struggle with regulating their learning activities and
    • b) from some focus groups that I conducted, we know that students are often uncertain about what way of taking breaks is best.

Eva’s research really aimed at making progress in a domain that hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves. And so, I thought it might be a good idea to interview her and ask her about the experiences, challenges, and insights she had along the way…

Q: Hi Eva. Before we dive into the details of your thesis and the research you conducted, could you talk a little bit about what made you want to conduct your own research and write your thesis about it?

Before I started my bachelor I always thought, research is not for me. I expected it to be very boring. But during my bachelor I became more and more interested in doing research, I discovered that it would be an opportunity to learn more about topics that are not completely understood yet. When I discovered it was a possibility to conduct my own research for my thesis, I became very excited. I saw this as an opportunity to discover if research was something for me after all or not. So, this is why I choose to conduct a study about it myself and write my thesis about it.

Q: Nice! So, now that we know why you wanted to step into the shoes of a researcher, can you tell us a bit about your research? What was it about?

My research is mainly about different break taking techniques and their effectiveness during study time. In specific I investigated the effect of the Pomodoro, Flowtime and intuitive break-taking. Pomodoro may sound familiar to some people because it is one of the most famous break-taking techniques. When using the Pomodoro technique, a student will study for 25 minutes and after this take a break of 5 minutes. This cycle is repeated 4 times before taking a longer recovery break of 15 to 30 minutes. Intuitive break taking on the other hand is more like how most students would normally take breaks. There is no restriction to the duration of study or break time. Students will just take a break whenever they feel like it and start study again whenever they want. The Flowtime technique is a variation of the Pomodoro technique and is a bit in between the Pomodoro and intuitive break taking technique. In this technique you will study for as long as you can focus and then take a break dependent on the duration of the study time. For example, if you study for 25 minutes you will receive a 5-minute break (like in the Pomodoro technique), but if you study a longer period, you will receive a longer break.

I administered the effectiveness of these techniques in terms of task completion and the feeling of fatigue, motivation and productivity.

I found significant differences between the different break taking techniques in mean break duration and the number of breaks students took. It was shown that the Pomodoro group took shorter breaks than the intuitive group. Besides that, the Pomodoro group took more breaks than the Flowtime group. On all other variables measured (fatigue, motivation, productivity and task completion) no significant differences were found between the break-taking techniques. These findings thus suggest that the break techniques are approximately equally effective in general. However, I found large variations within the groups which may suggest that effectiveness of a technique relies heavily on personal preferences. If this would be the case there is thus not one break taking technique effective for everyone, but rather different break taking techniques will be effective for different people.

Q: Interesting! And how was it to put this research together? And to write your thesis about it? Can you share a bit of the highs and lows you went through during the process? What are your major take aways from writing your thesis?

It was an amazing experience to put this research together. I did not set up a study so big before and before starting it I did not even dare to dream that I would be able to do this. During this project I discovered that I really like doing research. Doing research and setting up a study is definitely not a straight path. There are a lot of (unexpected) obstacles that I had to overcome, but I enjoyed the process of finding solutions to all problems that arose.

The hardest part for me was putting the questionnaire together. Logistically it was difficult to time the instructions to the participants correctly so that they knew when to take a break and when to study. For this I had to learn a bit about JavaScript, which was entirely new to me. After I got everything to work, I was overjoyed. Together with putting the questionnaire online this was one of the big highs of this experience. Unfortunately, this high did not last very long. After a day I received some emails that the questionnaire did not work as it was supposed to. Apparently, the questionnaire did not work on some computer systems…. Luckily I was able to fix this quickly in the end.

Because of these quick shifts in highs and lows you really have to think quickly and come up with creative solutions. In the end I think this is what I loved most about the project, the puzzling for solutions for unexpected difficulties (even though in the moment it is not always so fun)

Q: You are in an interesting position. You are a student conducting research on how students take breaks. Has conducting this research impacted how you look at studying and break taking? Has it changed, now that you took a deep dive into the literature and applied what you learned there in your research? And what would you recommend to your peers when it comes to taking breaks?

It made me more aware about the impact of (not) taking a break can have. It is very interesting to me how different types of breaks can impact you in different ways and how it seems like this is not the same for everyone.

I would recommend other students to first think about their current break taking behavior. Just become aware of what you are doing at this moment and how you think it influences you is good first step. I think we all have days where we study for only very short time and then take a 2-hour Netflix break, and probably most of us know this is not helping. After that I would suggest trying different break-taking methods. Not every method works for everyone, and it is important to experience and feel what works for you.

Q: And as a wrap-up: What are the next steps? Will you continue to go into the direction of educational research? And why? What drives you?

I will definitely continue into the direction of educational research. This experience of setting up the research and writing my thesis have fostered my interests, I discovered that there is still so much that has to be investigated and I would love to contribute to that so that hopefully in the future there is more knowledge on how people learn and how to support this learning best. In a few weeks I will finish my bachelor’s in psychology and after the summer break I will start with a research master in educational sciences at the University of Utrecht. I chose this master because I am eager to learn more about how people learn and what is effective in this. I find it fascinating that everyone learns and take breaks in unique ways and I am thus looking forward to learn more about this. And so I hope that, in the future, I can contribute to more projects like this!