A little exercise can help students focus and enjoy college lectures, study finds

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A college professor has found a way to help students and himself power through long lecture classes: breaks.

In a new study, an Ohio State University professor showed that five-minute exercise sessions during lectures were feasible and that students reported positive impacts on their attention and motivation, engagement with their colleagues and the enjoyment of the course. The research is published in the journal Frontiers in sport and active life.

The results may not be particularly surprising, but they suggest a solution to a long-standing problem in college classrooms, said Scott Hayes, study author and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“No one can stay on task for 80 minutes straight without their mind wandering and their attention waxing and waning,” Hayes said.

“If you give students a break and get their bodies moving for just a few minutes, it can help them get their minds back in the lecture and probably be more productive. I know it helps me, too.”

Hayes said he was inspired to do this research by a similar lab-based study of how students responded to exercise breaks during a single video conference. That study found positive results, but Hayes wondered if it could work in the real world of face-to-face college lectures, over the course of a full semester.

He tried it in four of his own classes. One or two student-directed exercise sessions (five minutes each) were implemented in each lecture during upper-level psychology courses with 20 to 93 students. The classes lasted 80 minutes.

At the beginning of the course, Hayes divided the class into small groups, and each group was responsible for developing a five-minute exercise session. Hayes reviewed the exercise sessions beforehand to make sure they were feasible and safe.

“I wanted the students to design and run the sessions because I thought it would help them buy into the idea and help with their involvement and investment,” she said.

Hayes admitted that the sessions were sometimes a little awkward at the beginning of the semester. The students didn’t know exactly how to act, and they weren’t used to doing something like that during a class.

But the students soon got going and had fun with the sessions. Some of the exercises that the students included were jumps, lunges, overhead press (with a backpack) and hamstring stretches.

Hayes said some student groups were creative in designing their sessions.

“One of the groups designed the theme of going to an orchard and picking apples. So they had their peers stand up as if they were picking apples from a tree and come forward to put them in a basket” , Hayes said.

Hayes said she knew the program was a success when students spontaneously provided anonymous feedback with end-of-semester student evaluations. One student’s comment reflected a common response: “I enjoyed the exercise breaks in class and I really felt that they motivated me to focus more.”

In one of the classes studied, Hayes surveyed students at the end of the course about the exercise sessions. All students reported that they had never taken a class that had a break during the class.

Exercise breaks were rated by students as improved attention, enjoyment, and improved peer engagement. They reported that, compared to other classes, they preferred the class with a break and would like more classes to offer these sessions.

An open question might be whether these exercise sessions improved student learning and grades. Hayes said that’s beyond the scope of this study, and it would be difficult to do that kind of research. Comparisons of different classes, at different times of the day and with a variety of teachers would make comparisons difficult to make.

But this study found that exercise breaks were feasible and that students enjoyed and found them useful, which she said may make it worthwhile for other teachers to try.

Some have already done so.

“Two colleagues in the psychology department here at Ohio State have told me that they have started exercise breaks in their courses,” Hayes said. “Maybe it’s catching on.”

More information:
Scott M. Hayes, Establishing the Feasibility of Exercise Breaks During University Lectures, Frontiers in sport and active life (2024). DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2024.1358564

Provided by The Ohio State University

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