My instruction time has specified breaks, but often the students do not take them, even if I urge them to. This results in them working and listening to my instruction while they are overdone. I tell them this is a marathon, not a sprint, and they will have the rest of their lives to sit in a chair in front of a keyboard, but they do not take the break, or they get a sip of water in the hallway and sit back down. This is impeding their learning and making them unhealthy ("Sitting is the new smoking", right?).

Have you found any effective ways to get students out of the chair to take their full breaks, other than having them take up smoking (thus defeating the purpose) or yelling Fire?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Some more context might help us to answer your question. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 16:31
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What exactly do you want them to do during these breaks? I don't see how standing around in the hallway looking at my phone for 10 minutes is any better than staying in my chair and looking at my phone for 10 minutes. How do you know this is making them unhealthy? You've tagged this with adult-education, so treat them like adults. If they don't want to take a break, then there isn't much you can (or should) do. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 17:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hey man, I hope this is not a joke. Are they glued (literally) to their seats. Or are you that good a faculty that they don't wish to stop hanging out with you. I got to vote to close this question. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Sep 22, 2017 at 4:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor If I took a class for adults and the teacher made me sit outside as punishment because I didn't "take a break" in the middle of class, I would immediately ask for my money back. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 16:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor A negative consequence that is enforced to be "real mean" as a result of violating some "rule" is literally a punishment. My point still stands. This question is about adult-education. Saying that the teacher should make an adult "stand outside" as punishment for not "taking a break" is ridiculous. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 18:36

4 Answers 4


I don't understand all the hate this question is getting. I'm guessing the answers depend on the context a lot.

Context of my answer

I regularly hold company trainings. Adult education. These are full day IT trainings, that means 9 AM to 5 PM. In the contract we offer 90 minute blocks with 15 minute breaks between and a 45 minute lunch break.

Importance of breaks

A break is not a waste of time. Researchers disagree on the amount of time an average human can uphold focused attention for, but all agree it is measured in minutes. I have learnt 4-5 minutes at the university, and I have read some researchers claiming it to be up to 20 minutes. But you can't expect an average human to uphold focused attention for hours at an end. It is possible to renew attention, this is where the teacher comes in by changing the rhythm, the tone, the visualization, the exercise. But from time to time, breaks are needed. (The 8 second attention span you hear about is different, it is the burst attention span or whatever it is called.)

It is not just the attention though, but moving/stretching as well. Most workplaces have recommendations, and though there are slight variations, most revolve around the "work for 60 minutes, get up and move for 15". This is not only beneficiary to the health of the individual, but also (many studies point this out) improves work performance.

Answer to the original question

My actual answer is: explain to them why breaks are important, explain to them how getting up, stretching, moving can help them concentrate, but don't try to force them to do so. If sitting is the new smoking, then dealing with it is similar: you can't just forcefully take the cigarette out of their hands. They know their own bodies and what type of break refills them. And they will learn the importance of breaks the hard way.

  • $\begingroup$ While I think the question is more about students working by themselves for too long to be healthy, there is research that suggests that a lecture should not exceed 20 minutes or the attention starts to drift. The idea is to break up longer sessions with lecture and other more active things, though not necessarily physical activity. The usual thing is to use "active learning" after a short lecture. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Sep 26, 2017 at 12:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You've added some example context which is still absent in the original question - I expect that in this context the breaks are more likely to be taken (e.g. lunch, even in the same room, requires some engagement). I don't see the experience you're describing reflected in the original question. Fortunately, you've not suggested gamification of the primary activity... $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2017 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really disagree with anything you said here. Please note that most of the "hate" in this question is directed at the idea of forcing students to take a break in a certain way, or to punish them for not taking a break exactly how the teacher wanted them to. If I recharge by looking at Twitter for ten minutes, who are you to tell me otherwise? I'm pretty sure you and I are saying more or less the same thing, especially with your last paragraph. $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2017 at 16:29
  1. We do most of our work in vampire-mode, i.e. lights-off. Turning the light on for breaks goes a long way towards encouraging students to rest their eyes and stretch.

  2. I put a 5-10 minute timer on the projector before every classroom context-switch, so a break doesn't take students by surprise. (It's easy to get lost in this sort of work.)

But you can't enforce rest. There will always be students who believe they can work forever without consequences, and should, and there will always be students who are just too excited about the day's content to slow down for every break.

Our reality is that students can take a break whenever they like; the primary purpose of my official breaks is to ensure students that it is okay to rest; many of us have been raised with a philosophy of overwork, and I don't have a single student who is in danger of failing because of laziness.


Breaks? I'm in highschool (not an adult) and I'd be kind of offended if someone told me to go "take a break", especially in an elective - I took this course to learn, not to get told that "sitting is the new smoking". You're wasting their time. (Also, don't assume your students spend their whole day sitting - a not insignificant number of them probably work out or do some form of activity during their day. No need to force it on them!)

Now, that being said - you don't need to rely on breaks to get people up and moving! There's activities for illustrating different sorting algorithms by having people stand in a row and shuffle themselves according to the algorithm; there's activities for "programming" each other, there's activities for just about anything you want to do.

These have the bonus of helping the information stick in the mind of the student ("remember that time we programmed Joe so that he walked into a wall?") and, most importantly, having actual substantive content - that is, not wasting student time.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1 for the first paragraph, agreed completely. I'll just add that I'd also get sick of constant "let's get up and moving!" type activities. I'm there to learn. I paid money to be there. Don't waste my time with cleverly disguised "breaks" that I know I don't need. (Or that I might not be physically capable of! Being an adult sucks, and my knees aren't what they used to be!) $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2017 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ Why would it offend you that a break is held e.g. every 90 minutes? The teacher needs it more than you, but you would need it too. (Even @KevinWorkman needs it, at least his mind and body does, even if he denies it.) Breaks are not a waste of time, just like sleeping. Yes, we sleep every day, what a waste of time! But try working after 24 hours of wakefullness... $\endgroup$
    – vacip
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs deserve a + though. $\endgroup$
    – vacip
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ @vacip sure, there's a place for breaks, but that place is not in a paid for adult education class. $\endgroup$
    – auden
    Sep 26, 2017 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ @heather even if that class lasts 360 minutes (4*90 minutes, but I do hold breaks) - this is the case in many adult education intensive courses, actually 90% of the courses I hold. I'd love to hear your opinion on this at 14:30 when there is still 2 hours to go, with no lunch or toilet break since 9 AM. :) $\endgroup$
    – vacip
    Sep 26, 2017 at 12:49

If the class isn't too big or too small, you could organize some simple games. You can have a tournament, possibly with prizes. The prize can be as simple as a gold star sticker like the ones elementary school teachers have given out for years.

Basketball Free Throws
Baseball/beanbag: "hit a target"
Frisbee (Ultimate)
Make a circle of people and throw a few small balls back and forth around it, calling out the name of the recipient as you throw.
Musical Chairs
Hand slapping (Pease Porridge hot -- )

Or plan in advance and have people recite some poem - dramatically (weirdly).

The idea is to get them on their feet doing something together, possibly competitively, but not too competitively. Find something that will make them happy and laugh. Don't just make it free time. Change of pace can also free the mind.

If they will be together as a class for a long time you could ask the students for ideas for the activity.

If part of their work in class involves teamwork this can have a positive effect on team building as well as getting a bit of exercise. You may not even need "prizes".

Yes, I'm intentionally giving strange examples here, but you know a lot of this stuff from when you were a kid. You can find more online. Many of these games can be adapted to adults. It is hardest to do with teen-agers who are often too self conscious.

Note that PLoP Conferences in the Patterns Community have several sessions of "Game Time" each day. Fun and active. It is one of the main reasons that it is a community, actually. They often have a special role of "Games Master" to organize it. I've used this idea in intensive courses both to break the ice at the start and to get people doing things together as a team.

  • $\begingroup$ If you can teach something in this game time, even better: They will learn something, and may engage more (as they don't see it as wasting time). Also explain why you are doing it, as this will help. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 8:28
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ What does any of this happy-clappy nonsense have to do with learning computer science?" If I was forced to take part in that sort of time wasting, I would just leave the class - and you are forcing people to take part, through peer pressure from those who will prefer throwing balls around to using their brains. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Sep 24, 2017 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ @alephzero Breaks have to do with learning. I'd love to see how well you function after 4 hours of continuous learning with 0 breaks. As for the "happy-clappy nonsense", this heavily depends on the teacher. And I have to admit, you have to be on a very very high level to pull this sort of thing off. But if you can, it will work wonders. Also, this answer is about spending time during the breaks, and clearly about elementary school level. Why would it upset you is beyond me... $\endgroup$
    – vacip
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Actually, I did this with adults in a doctoral program, but just for the reasons you suggest. It is very successful - and necessary - and team-building. However, if you are seen by your students as primarily authoritarian, then just send them out and lock the door. (No, I didn't really say that.) As I said above, it is teen-agers who have the hardest time with such a solution. On the other hand, if a student came to me as a "brain in a jar" then I'd probably exempt them from game-time. But they would resent the fact they were left out, I think. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Sep 26, 2017 at 11:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.