'I just thought it was an interesting question, whether taking a break had a quantitative effect' on comprehension, says Robert Mason Eastwood
It’s the kind of question you’d expect from a top student: Do you learn more if you study for hours without breaks or if you take short study breaks every so often?
That question not only occurred to Robert Mason Eastwood but also formed the basis of his honors thesis. Eastwood graduated this month summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in psychology and neuroscience, a minor in philosophy and a 4.0 grade-point average.
By his own account, Eastwood loves to learn and likes hard questions. That is one reason he designed an experiment to find out if taking a study break while reading a textbook chapter improved reading comprehension.
“I just thought it was an interesting question, whether taking a break had a quantitative effect” on comprehension, Eastwood said recently. “To my great surprise, I found out that no one had ever asked that question before.”
Eastwood’s research found that five-minute study breaks had no adverse effect on reading comprehension or on reading speed. “In other words, the break neither helped nor harmed subjects’ reading comprehension, and neither increased nor decreased subjects’ reading speed,” he wrote in his abstract.
This novel research is one reason Eastwood is the fall 2017 outstanding graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.
For his research, Eastwood recruited 60 psychology undergraduate students who participated in a two-session experiment in exchange for partial course credit. The students read the first chapter of The Cosmic Perspective, a college-level astronomy textbook.
Half read the chapter with no break, and the others read the chapter with a five-minute break midway. Both groups took an exam to measure their comprehension, and while the experiment did not find a benefit to taking a break or powering through the text, Eastwood said the research “serves as a necessary starting point” for further scholarly inquiry.
Because of the lack of prior research in this area, he stated, designing experimental parameters was “akin to blindly shooting at a target the size of a paperclip in a football field.” But, he said, “the stage has been set for future investigations to get closer to hitting that target.”
Alice Healy, a professor of distinction in psychology and neuroscience who served as Eastwood’s thesis advisor, said his thesis was “extremely strong” and his oral defense was “very impressive, clear and incisive.” She said his presentation of his work was as good as that of the “excellent graduate students in my laboratory.”
My passion for learning all kinds of things has left me unsure of what I really want to do in life, so I’m going to go do manual labor outdoors for a year while I think about it."
Eastwood’s project, she added, addresses a “fundamental and novel question that has relevance both to basic theoretical issues concerning learning and memory and to practical issues concerning ways to optimize knowledge acquisition by students.”
Eastwood could go straight into to graduate school or a career. In the coming year, he’s planning to do neither. “My passion for learning all kinds of things has left me unsure of what I really want to do in life, so I’m going to go do manual labor outdoors for a year while I think about it,” he said.
He will do wildfire-mitigation work in the Front Range foothills, a pursuit that will involve a lot of hiking, digging, cutting and lifting. “I’m sure I’ll return to academia, or to some kind of intellectual work, in the very near future,” he said. “When I do, though, I want it to be for the right reasons.”
During a recent conversation with James W.C. White, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Eastwood and the dean mused about the power of a 4.0 GPA, which both of them attained. They agreed that the grade itself wasn’t their sole motivation.
“I realized I don’t think the quality of my work would go down if there were no such thing as grades,” Eastwood observed. “The quality of my life might go up, but the quality of my work wouldn’t change. The opportunity to be exposed to new information, cutting edge conversations, to think critically, and to interact with professors who both know what they are talking about and care about it too, is an opportunity that I would take regardless of what kind of recognition I get for it.”
This love of learning for its own sake marked his time at the university, he said: “When I sat in my first lecture here at CU, something happened. A light went on. I was excited to come to class each day so I could participate. In just about every class I’ve taken, I’ve felt the same way.”