Fostering Intellectual Agility and Transfer Through Mindfulness in the Classroom

Mindfulness for Learning Transfer

What is Mindfulness?

As educators, we seek to equip our students to maximally transfer our course material into new contexts across their lives. However, in today’s hurried world, we all move too frequently through our days in a state of mental autopilot, missing important details from each new moment because our minds are somewhere else. No matter how well students may have originally learned our material, if they mindlessly miss the opportunities for transfer in subsequent contexts, they won’t be able to make use of that knowledge—which is the whole point of learning it in the first place.

In contrast to this state of mindless autopilot, mindfulness is an active state of mind that allows one to (a) identify novel features of the present moment, (b) be sensitive to context and perspective, and (c) be guided but not governed by rules and routines (Langer, 2014). This is a state of mind that is primed to make optimum use of prior knowledge through transfer.

What’s the Evidence?

A growing number of instructors now use brief exercises in the classroom to intentionally cultivate habits of mindfulness to enhance their students’ ability to transfer knowledge, repeating these activities across the semester to provide benefits analogous to repeated visits to a gym. For example, in a “focused attention” exercise, one spends a few minutes focusing the mind on a single sensation and continually re-focusing on that sensation when distracted. Versions of this practice have been shown to cultivate attention and reduce distraction (Kok & Singer, 2016; Moore & Malinowski, 2009). In contrast, in an “open awareness” exercise, a student can spend a few minutes observing her own thoughts, sensations, and emotions, but practice continually letting them come and go freely. This practice develops one’s ability to be receptive to new possibilities and non-reactive, thereby increasing the capacity for creative thought (Colzato et al., 2012; Hölzel et al., 2011).


  • Start each class with a few minutes of mindfulness practice, which can prepare your students to get the most from the experience. Ramsburg and Youmans (2013) found that six minutes of mindfulness focus practice at the beginning of class increased university students’ ability to retain information from a subsequent lecture, in comparison to those who spent six minutes doing something else.
  • Consider giving students a few minutes of mindfulness practice prior to high-stakes assessments like mid-terms, if you want to get the best performance out of them. Lloyd et al. (2016) found that a three-minute mindfulness activity improved participants’ ability to accurately recall information they had learned.
  • Make it clear that students are invited, not required, to participate in mindfulness activities and that they understand the purpose behind the activities and how they can benefit (Barbezat & Bush, 2014).


Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: The impact of focused attention and open monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinkingFrontiers in Psychology, 3, 1-5.

Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspectivePerspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.

Kok, B. E., & Singer, T. (2016). Phenomenological fingerprints of four meditations: Differential state changes in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition,
and interoception before and after daily practice across 9 months of trainingMindfulness, 1-14.

Langer, E. (2014). Mindfulness forward and back. In A. Ie, C. T. Ngnoumen, & E. J. Langer (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 7-20). Malden, MA: Wiley and Sons.

Lloyd, M., Szani, A., Rubenstein, K., Colgary, C., & Pereira-Pasarin, L. (2016). A brief mindfulness exercise before retrieval reduces recognition memory false alarmsMindfulness, 7(3), 606-613.

Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibilityConsciousness and Cognition, 18, 176-186.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transferEducational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258.

Ramsburg, J. T., & Youmans, R. J. (2014). Meditation in the higher-education classroom: Meditation training improves student knowledge retention during lecturesMindfulness, 5(4), 431-441.