July 8th, 2010

Let’s Take a Break


How about a regularly scheduled two-to three-minute break in the middle of class? John A. Olmsted III recommends it for the following reasons: 1) it provides a change of pace and lets students recharge tired brains; 2) it can be used to get students involved with the content; and 3) it can be designed to provide valuable feedback. Olmsted offers these examples to illustrate how he uses the break in his chemistry courses.

In-class assessment breaks

Based on the classroom research model, Olmsted uses the short break to assess a specific skill he wants students to master such as drawing a particular molecular picture. Students do the task and offer feedback as to how confident they are that they completed it successfully. Or he may ask students to assess an instructional technique such as the effectiveness of his presentation on a particular topic. Other times the questions encourage the students to self assess: “Were you satisfied with your performance on the first hour examination?” followed by some probes as to why and/or why not. And finally there are questions about what students think might support their efforts to learn: “Friday’s class will be a review in preparation for Monday’s exam on thermodynamics. What specific topics would you like me to cover in the review?” (p. 526)

Feedback breaks

During feedback breaks, Olmstead reports back on the feedback students have provided during a recent assessment break. He illustrates the general class conclusions with examples of positive and negative comments. In responding to the request for topics for review sessions, Olmsted prepares an overhead and uses it to guide the content of the review session.


For this break the instructor presents interesting and relevant chemistry news such as introducing winners of the Nobel Prizes in chemistry and talking a bit about their research. Sometimes it’s “local” news like announcements about a schedule change for a class session or reminders about due dates. Olmsted incorporates a bit of humor by occasionally offering a “crime” report involving students who are delinquent in picking up exams or requests for information on “missing persons” who have not been seen in class for some time. The “weather report” may include a prediction about events to come in the class. “Weather will be clear through the weekend, but a storm front is expected early next week, with the probability of quizzes reaching 75% on Monday.” (p. 526)

Olmsted concludes with a warning. “Mid-lecture breaks are addictive. At the end of one semester, I announced that I planned to forgo the mid-lecture break in order to allow a full review of topics that would be on the final. The uproar was deafening, and I hastily improvised a mid-lecture break.” (p. 527)

Reference: John A. Olmsted, III (1999). The mid-lecture break: when less is more. Journal of Chemical Education, 76 (4), 525-27.