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How to stay sharp over the summer

At a glance

  • Known as the summer slide, students who disengage from learning content, typically over the summer, slowly lose their mastery over subject matter throughout a learning gap.
  • While cognitive processing slows down with age, you can fight against cognitive decline and learning loss by regularly engaging your intellect.
  • Building a routine that incorporates reading, physical activity and puzzles is a way to prevent summer learning loss and also help you stay sharp year-round.
  • University of Phoenix doesn’t have summer break. Classes are taken one at a time and are offered throughout the year for a pace designed to fit your lifestyle. Learn more!

Struggling from the summer slide?

Have you experienced sluggishness returning to work or school after summer or an extended break? A lack of focus or general apathy?

If so, you’re not alone. Known as “summer setback” or “summer slide,” the struggle to reengage with coursework has traditionally affected students who enjoy a summer break in between school years. But it can just as easily affect adults who’ve been out of school for a while or employees who take a vacation any time of the year.

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Often, these students have difficulty going over subject matter they were supposed to have learned at the end of their previous school year. One study, which reviewed and analyzed 39 independent studies about summer slide, found that students who disengaged from learning content slowly lost their mastery over the subjects throughout a learning gap.

At least one study claims that summer learning loss equates to about one month’s worth of the previous school year’s education.

For individuals who have been out of school for more than just a summer, the idea of jumping into a course like composition or college algebra can seem daunting. And for good reason. As U.S. News & World Report documents, your ability to process information slows with age. It can be done, but it does take longer.

Changes in learning processes shouldn’t deter you from pursuing your educational goals. Slower learning speeds do not translate to a loss in cognitive ability, just the speed at which we learn. And, as the U.S. News & World Report article suggests, your best defense against a declining mind is to use it.

From regular reading to physical exercise (yep, they’re connected!), Christina Neider, EdD, the dean for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix, shares four key ways to combat summer learning loss and keep your brain sharp and focused over the summer and year-round.

"Slower learning speeds do not translate to a loss in cognitive ability, just the speed at which we learn."

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1. Be a bookworm

Staying intellectually agile is a lot like strength and endurance training: It requires frequent and sustained practice. And, in reading this article, you’re already doing it.

“The No. 1 thing I suggest students do over [summer or a general break] is to read,” Neider says.

Summer reading is important for practical purposes too. Most students have trouble reentering the classroom after summer break or an extended period away because of the quantity and quality of the required readings. For those enrolling in college after years outside a classroom, the required reading in their degree program may differ significantly from what they are used to reading on a daily basis.

But before going out and buying a textbook, returning students can simply research the topics they are interested in. They can read case studies in academic journals, peruse open-source articles through databases like or explore a variety of subjects and writing styles on University of Phoenix’s Research Hub.

Neider explains: “If a student is enrolled in an anthropology course in the fall, for example, I suggest they look at publications first in the news, then in anthropology journals. Basically, anything with substance, not just Google.”

Neider adds that this summer reading process offers another benefit: Students get used to the research process, which is inherent to higher education.

“I suggest students take on topics they are already interested in. That way, the motivation is there and reading difficult passages will be easier,” Neider says. “If a student picks something arbitrary or, worse, something they know they don’t like, then they will associate school reading with something negative. And that will make their university experience a real drag.”

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2. Get active

Besides reading, being physically active offers some surprising advantages when it comes to avoiding a summer slide. Research shows that physical activity helps stimulate the brain by improving capacity to think critically and problem-solve. (It can also improve memory and reduce cognitive decline.) Summer activities like swimming or walking are just two ways your body can help stimulate the brain: They force you to engage with your surroundings, which builds curiosity. 

3. Engage your brain

Another way to engage your brain and prevent learning loss is through puzzles. Long touted for encouraging problem-solving and improving concentration, puzzles (think Sudoku and crosswords) stimulate the reasoning, logical parts of the brain and help form retention habits, which can improve academic performance.

4. Develop a routine

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Between working, raising children and running a household, finding uninterrupted time to sit and read for even 30 minutes might sound impossible. But really it can boil down to time management. Summer can make this even more difficult for parents whose kids are home from school. 

"Students have to realize that staying engaged is crucial.”

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Neider suggests students make summer reading a daily or weekly habit. “Students entering the fall semester do well if they’ve already made a habit of sustained reading time,” she says. “I know for many it helps if they join a local book club or some association that meets regularly. Not only does this give them a structure for reading and engaging with the material, [it also lets] students start meeting people and networking, something they will find invaluable in their university experience.”

Book clubs offer additional benefits, like conversations that incorporate new perspectives. No two readers will interpret a book the same way, and the ensuing discussions are good precursors to the kind of dialogue you’ll find in a classroom.

Beyond all this, it’s also important to focus on the long game. “Students have to realize that staying engaged is crucial,” says Neider.

For that reason, some institutions, like University of Phoenix, don’t actually incorporate summer breaks. Instead, classes are offered throughout the year and are taken one at a time, with each lasting about five weeks. This model helps students stay engaged without overloading their learning experience.

For such students, Neider suggests habitually engaging with the content on a daily basis, even when no assignments are due.

“Students tell me this makes them feel like they are on top of the situation,” Neider explains. “Once they begin coursework, this daily engagement also helps them feel more connected to their classmates and their faculty.”

After all, when it comes to beating the summer slide, it’s all about connections, whether that’s between the mind and body, your intellect and coursework, or you and your classmates.


William Ordeman is a lecturer of business communication and a PhD candidate studying communication, borders and public health. Before entering higher education, he led marketing initiatives for several global enterprises as a marketing automation specialist. He has since published an edited book, written several articles, and continued to teach writing, public speaking and employment training to his students. When not plugging away at his dissertation, Ordeman is likely playing his drums or reading a sci-fi novel.


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