What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an active state of mind, non-judgmentally focused on the present moment. This state allows one to continuously make “novel distinctions”—to notice new things, moment to moment—but remain in a place of choice about whether and how to respond to them. This means that one is guided by familiar rules and routines but not mindlessly governed by them (Langer, 2014). Mindfulness practices are intentional activities that cultivate a state of mindfulness in the moment. When practiced regularly over time, mindfulness has measurable positive effects on attention, focus, creativity, and compassion as well as general well-being in the form of reduced stress, reduced depression, reduced blood pressure, and increased emotional self-regulation (Didonna, 2009).
Practicing mindfulness with students may take many forms and is generally described as part of the emerging “contemplative pedagogy” movement in teaching and learning. Though some educators are hesitant about initiating a mindfulness practice with students, most educators report that students greatly appreciate these moments and actually remark upon them as being among the best parts of a learning experience.
What’s the Evidence?
Educators can use a variety of 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), as well as decrease effort and unrelated thoughts for the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009). In contrast, in an “open awareness” exercise, a student can spend a few minutes observing their 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 be 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 midterms, to enable students’ best performance. 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. Do explain the purpose behind the activities and how students 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. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Contemplative+Practices+in+Higher+Education%3A+Powerful+Methods+to+Transform+Teaching+and+Learning-p-9781118435274
Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: The impact of focused attention and open monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116
Didonna, F. (2009). Clinical handbook of mindfulness. Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-09593-6
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 perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611419671
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 training. Mindfulness, 8, 218-231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9
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. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118294895.ch1
Lloyd, M., Szani, A., Rubenstein, K., Colgary, C., & Pereira-Pasarin, L. (2016). A brief mindfulness exercise before retrieval reduces recognition memory false alarms. Mindfulness, 7(3), 606-613. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0495-y
Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N. B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental training enhances attentional stability: Neural and behavioral evidence. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(42), 13418-13427. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009
Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18 (1), 176-186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2008.12.008
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.693354
Ramsburg, J. T., & Youmans, R. J. (2014). Meditation in the higher-education classroom: Meditation training improves student knowledge retention during lectures. Mindfulness, 5(4), 431-441. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0199-5