Spotlight on SOTL: To break or not break – that is the question.
This article is based on the following research article:
Agnew, M., Poole, H., & Khan, A. (2019). Fall break fallout: Exploring student perceptions of the impact of an autumn break on stress. Student Success, 10(3), 45-54. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5204/ssj.v10i3.1412
Mid-term recess. Reading week. Fall break. Whatever we choose to call it, a break part-way through the semester seems like a reasonable idea. Or does it? As we emerge from the recent February reading week, one might wonder about its efficacy. Research from McMaster University by Michael Agnew, Heather Poole and Ayesha Khan explore the benefits and impacts of a mid-term break on student stress levels.
What did the researchers do and find?
In the fall of 2015 and 2016, the researchers invited students who had participated in pre- and post- fall break surveys to attend a semi-structured focus group interview. In total, 69 students participated. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed via a structured and open coding process. The six major themes that were identified from the data were categorized into two groups: benefits and challenges.
Benefits reported by the student participants were (i) the opportunity for recuperation and stress reduction while attending to their emotional health and mental well-being, and (ii) the ability to focus on academic work and test preparation.
Some of the perceived challenges of the mid-term break reported by participants were:
- the high density of assessments immediately before and after the break,
- difficulty managing their time during the break, notably reporting that the break led to increased procrastination and subsequent feelings of guilt,
- disruption to the flow of their academic routine, indicating that it was difficult to regain motivation to return focus to their academic work following the break, and
- timing of the mid-term break – specifically the fall break – relative to the rest of the academic term, noting that the fall break felt too early in the term.
How might you use this research in your teaching?
One of the reasons why the mid-term break exists is to serve as a stress-reduction intervention, particularly in response to increasing reports of “startling levels of stress and mental health concerns.” However, research reported though the present article suggests that a mid-term break may introduce additional stress in some cases.
Some ways in which instructors might support their students around the mid-term break times include:
- set assignment deadlines and test dates that don’t fall immediately before or after the break,
- connect with colleagues who teach in the same program to balance assessment deadlines and test dates,
- limit expectations of students during mid-term breaks, while recognizing they may have work for other courses and the need for respite, and
- discuss and encourage time-management strategies for structuring time use during the mid-term break.
Finally, knowing that students report a mid-term break can allow for some stress relief during the break itself, it also can increase stress immediately before and after the break. It may be helpful to bring this to the attention of students, and to consider how you might coach your students through these emotional shifts.
Stay tuned for the next Spotlight on SoTL coming to the MacPherson Memo on March 29, 2023.Spotlight on SOTL, Updates