Mindfulness as an Active Learning Strategy: Building Students’ Resilience and Coping Skills
Posted August 9, 2017
By Julie Kingery
My Own Journey to Discovering Mindfulness
My own mindfulness journey began when I decided to try a yoga class at the local YMCA in Maine during the summer after my second year of graduate school. As a “Type A” personality who was raised in an achievement-focused family, yoga opened my eyes to a world of new coping strategies for dealing with stress. I left each class experiencing a level of relaxation that I had rarely felt before. Since that first experience, barely a week has gone by that I haven’t attended at least one yoga class. The stretching, breathing, and meditation have helped me maintain balance amidst life’s many challenges over the past 18 years.
As a faculty member at a small liberal arts institution for the past decade, I’ve seen students struggling with various academic and personal stressors, with very limited coping resources to draw upon. Prior to the spring of 2017, I had periodically led students in brief mindfulness exercises (e.g., when covering the topic of Stress and Health in my Psy100 class). However, incorporating a formal mindfulness component into a course felt risky to me. I had many doubts, including how students would respond and the logistics of embarking on this new teaching endeavor.
Scientific Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness
To help ease my doubts, I turned to the research literature on this topic. I learned that participation in mindfulness-based programs has produced positive outcomes for college students, including reduced symptoms of anxiety (Call et al., 2014), decreased symptoms of depression (McIndoo et al., 2016), increased mindful awareness and self-control (Canby et al., 2015), and improvements in sleep quality and self-compassion (Greeson et al., 2014). A few studies have even shown that brief mindfulness exercises introduced at the beginning of each class meeting can have positive effects on psychological well-being and/or academic performance (i.e., Ramsburg & Youmans, 2014; Yamada & Victor, 2012). I felt encouraged by this scientific evidence!
Conversations with my talented yoga and mindfulness teacher, Jacoby Ballard, during the spring of 2016 were also helped with the decision to incorporate mindfulness in one of my courses. Jacoby suggested that I read Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, and he highly recommended that I attend a workshop led by the authors of this book. I felt excited about the possibility of gathering with like-minded educators from across the country to learn more about teaching mindfulness to college students. After talking with Jacoby and learning about the research evidence on this topic, I decided to take the next steps toward sharing my passion for mindfulness with students in my developmental psychology seminar that would be offered in the spring of 2017.
Getting StartedTo help me accomplish this goal, I applied for (and received) an innovative teaching grant offered through our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). My plan was to integrate mindfulness into an upper-level developmental psychology seminar focused on developmental psychopathology, a perspective that emphasizes understanding risk and resilience in the lives of children and adolescents. I conceptualized the mindfulness strategies as a form of active learning that would help students build resilience in their own lives. The grant allowed me to attend the “Contemplative Practice in Higher Education” workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York in the fall of 2016. Participating in the workshop helped me develop a better understanding of a broad range of activities that fall under the category of “contemplative” or “mindfulness” practices.
Throughout the fall 2016 semester, I participated in small group meetings every three weeks with the group of faculty on my campus who had received innovative teaching grants. Through these meetings, I developed my ideas about what the mindfulness component of my class would actually look like, obtaining feedback from group members on course design and assignments. Although my yoga teacher Jacoby relocated to Massachusetts during the summer of 2016, I kept in touch with him via e-mail and periodic phone calls. He suggested several helpful resources, and we strategized about ways in which I could strengthen my own daily mindfulness practice in preparation for doing this work with my students.
By exploring the books and other resources recommended by Jacoby, I expanded my own repertoire of mindfulness exercises that I was then able to share with my students. Throughout the spring 2017 semester, I led my seminar students through deep breathing exercises, intention setting, loving kindness meditations, other guided meditations, and yoga, and we also discussed ways to incorporate mindfulness into various daily activities such as walking to and from class.
The students read a chapter each week from a book entitled “Real World Mindfulness for Beginners: Navigate Daily Life One Practice at a Time”, edited by Brenda Salgado, along with other chapters and research articles about mindfulness. At the beginning of the semester, I suggested that each student use the free app called Insight Timer, which has many guided meditations to choose from, allows you to virtually connect with others who have the same app, has a timer for unguided meditation, and logs each session of meditation that you complete. Some students used this app, but several students found other apps that they preferred (e.g., Calm, Buddhify). A few weeks into the mindfulness component of the course, I started a discussion feed on Canvas and asked that students post about their favorite apps/guided meditations within apps, websites, etc., so that everyone in class could refer to this list for ideas. We also shared ideas during in-class discussions.
In addition to the teaching grant, I obtained funds from the Provost’s Office and the Vice President of Student Affairs to bring Jacoby back to campus to work with students in two different ways. First, he offered an in-class workshop on yoga and mindfulness for the students in my seminar. He also presented an evening campus-wide talk entitled “Mindfulness and Social Change” that my students were required to attend. Jacoby’s campus visit was in early March, after my students had been practicing mindfulness for about four to five weeks. They had many thoughtful questions for Jacoby during his visit and I thought it was very beneficial for them to learn mindfulness strategies from someone considered an expert in that field.
Outcomes –the Expected and the Unexpected
Regarding anticipated outcomes, it was sometimes challenging to set aside time for the in-class mindfulness practices and discussions when there was so much other course material that I wanted to cover. Also as expected, although all students completed the weekly mindfulness logs and reflection papers, some seemed to be more invested in the mindfulness component of the course than others.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I was pleased to see the great extent to which some students benefited from the weekly practices outside of class. Some students ended up practicing more than the required three times per week and described dramatic differences in their stress levels, understanding of mindfulness, levels of self-compassion, etc. throughout the semester. I was also surprised by the quality of the reflection papers, in which many students shared powerful insights and personal struggles that they were facing throughout the semester. This allowed me to get to know students in a different way. I was pleased with how many connections students were able to make between course material (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy for youth with anxiety and depression) and the mindfulness practices.
Reflection on Student LearningTo help capture the impact of the mindfulness practices on students’ learning, I created an end-of-semester assessment. Through this questionnaire, many students expressed having a broadened understanding of the concept of mindfulness. The mean scores on these questions were all between 4 and 5 (1 = not at all/never to 5= very much/often), with mean scores to specific questions as follows:
- Change in understanding of mindfulness: 4.50
- Frequency of practice outside of class: 3.86
- How much did you enjoy outside/inside of class practice: 3.94/3.84
- Enhanced learning of material: 3.92
In students’ responses to open-ended questions, the following themes emerged:
- Learned about how beneficial mindfulness can be
- Learned that there are many different types of mindfulness practices
- Practicing mindfulness reduced their stress
- Majority expressed enjoying the in-class mindfulness exercises
For additional qualitative feedback, I pulled quotes from the students’ final mindfulness reflection papers. Several example quotes are included below:
- “…participating in mindfulness allowed me to become much more aware of my body and my thoughts…”
- “I have learned the value of being able to take a step back and take a moment for myself…”
- “…The exercises opened my eyes and enabled me to be much more kindhearted towards myself as well as patient…”
- “…Each time I find myself feeling overwhelmed now I always take a few seconds to stop and breathe…
In both the end-of-semester assessment and the final mindfulness reflection papers, the majority of students reported enjoying the mindfulness component of the course, expressed that the mindfulness exercises helped to broaden their perspective and to manage their stress during the semester, and several of them expressed that they planned to continue completing the exercises on their own in the future.
In the final reflection paper I asked students to give advice to future developmental psychology seminar students about the mindfulness component of the course. The advice that they provided was invaluable, and I definitely plan to share this information with my future students!
Lessons Learned and Ideas for the Future
In terms of “lessons learned” from implementing the mindfulness component of the course, I offer the following:
- Students may be reluctant at first – presenting them with the scientific evidence regarding the benefits of mindfulness (via assigned readings) can be helpful to reduce resistance; emphasizing that mindfulness is a skill that needs to be developed through practice is also key.
- It is very important for the course instructor to engage in his/her own mindfulness practice, outside of the in-class exercises being completed with students – this approach can help the instructor to identify “pitfalls” and relate more easily to the challenges that students describe as they embark on their own mindfulness journeys.
- Students enjoyed using apps; they reported being able to engage in guided meditations more easily than unguided; most students had to try several different guided meditations before finding their own favorites.
- Carving out class time for mindfulness exercises/discussion was challenging, but worthwhile.
- Bringing in a yoga/mindfulness expert for the in-class workshop and evening talk worked well; it was helpful for students to participate in a “hands on” session led by someone who has devoted his career to yoga and mindfulness; he answered their questions and offered a valuable perspective that students may not have gained otherwise.
- Some students thought that the weekly mindfulness logs were burdensome, in the future I may consider a different method.
Next spring, I plan to repeat the mindfulness component of this course. By continuing my personal mindfulness practice, I hope to be able to broaden the range of mindfulness exercises that I can offer to my students. While working with my students last spring, my own understanding of mindfulness expanded. I learned a great deal by watching them discover mindfulness for the first time. This teaching endeavor was extremely rewarding, and has transformed my once reluctant stance on integrating mindfulness into the college classroom.
Julie Newman Kingery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her research focuses on associations between peer relationships and psychological adjustment during early adolescence, as well as the peer experiences of youth with anxiety disorders. She recently completed a research paper on the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and emotional well-being among college students, and looks forward to future scholarly endeavors related to mindfulness. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, running, and spending time with her husband and two young children in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of western New York.
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1) Talk by mindfulness expert Sharon Salzberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LFSH13A9uw
2) UCLA website- guided meditations with differing lengths:
3) Sounds True website- download 6 free guided mindfulness practices if you enter your e-mail address, also free meditation music downloads: http://www.soundstrue.com/store/freefree
4) “Healing Lake Meditation,” a 6 minute guided meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn: https://soundcloud.com/linda-gray-quinton/healing-lake-meditation
5) Progressive muscle relaxation exercise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFwCKKa--18&feature=related
6) Mindful eating raisin meditation: http://hfhc.ext.wvu.edu/r/download/114469
- Stop, Breath & Think: To view and sample various guided meditations available through this app, go to: https://app.stopbreathethink.org (then click on List of Meditations).
Call, D., Miron, L., Orcutt, H. (2014). Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress. Mindfulness, 5, 658-668.
Canby, N. K., Cameron, I. M., Calhoun, A. T., & Buchanan, G. M. (2015). A brief mindfulness intervention for healthy college students and its effects on psychological distress, self- control, meta-mood, and subjective vitality. Mindfulness, 6, 1071-1081.
Greeson, J. M., Juberg, M. K., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health, 62, 222-233.
McIndoo, C. C., File, A. A., Preddy, T., Clark, C. G., & Hopko, D. R. (2016). Mindfulness-based therapy and behavioral activation: A randomized controlled trial with depressed college students. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 77, 118-128.
Ramsburg, J. T., & Youmans, R. J. (2014). Meditation in the higher-education classroom: Meditation training improves student knowledge retention during lectures. Mindfulness, 5, 431-441.
Yamada, K., & Victor, T. L. (2012). The impact of mindful awareness practices on college student health, well-being, and capacity for learning: A pilot study. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 11, 139-145.