Academic stress and the social pressures of college life have left a generation of college students looking for relief. In an exploration of more than 150,400 students who received mental health services at 139 college and university counseling centers, researchers found that more students are seeking services with the primary concern being anxiety (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2017). Mindfulness, a way of being focused on living in the moment and observing thoughts nonjudgmentally, may be a tool for professors to help these students. What follows is a roadmap for how educators can use contemplative practices to take college students on a mindful path toward healing.
Haynes et al. (2013) define mindfulness as “moment-by-moment present awareness, which is available to everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual orientation” (p. 64). Mindfulness practices can take various forms, such as meditation, deep listening, exercises with the body and journaling. After these activities, they found that undergraduate students reported experiencing an increase of empathy and a sense of community in the classroom, sensed more patience and compassion toward themselves and others, learned new ways of managing stress and felt more creative. A study of first-year college students found that mindfulness-based programs increased students’ satisfaction with life and led to a decrease in depression and anxiety (Dvořáková et al., 2017). The program focused on improving emotional regulation, introducing mindfulness techniques focused on stress relief and creating a supportive learning environment.
From my own experiences teaching journalism as an adjunct instructor at Pennsylvania State University, some areas of focus in the mindfulness-based approach for college educators repeatedly appear.
Establish a regular practice for yourself
If instructors expect students to unlock the benefits of mindfulness, they need to be companions on the journey, willing to take time for contemplation outside of the classroom and bring mindfulness’ spirit of nonjudgement into the classroom. Uhl and Stuchul (2011) warn that instructors need to be aware that feelings of their own inadequacy can manifest as harsh judgment and disapproval toward students. To bring about compassionate self-acceptance within students, instructors must be on a journey of “self-discovery, self-knowing and self-love” (p. 81).
Mindfulness practices can be mutually beneficial for both educators and students. A mindfulness program for middle school teachers resulted in the educators reporting more positive emotions, less burnout and fewer physical symptoms of stress (Harris et al., 2015). The Holistic Education Faculty Circle at Penn State uses similar practices from the study such as meditation and a sharing of experiences among colleagues to support professors. I’ve joined in multiple sessions and find it enlivening. Participants in the circle start with a guided meditation and hold discussions in the “council” style, allowing each member time for uninterrupted sharing through the passing of an object such as a stick or a heart-shaped stone. As one participant put it, we’re “recognizing that our lights burn brighter in community” (Zimmerman, 2017).
During especially stressful times in the semester, I found it helpful to take a few moments for gratitude, simply a little quiet time to dwell on a student whose writing has significantly improved, a student who thanked me for an insight or a student who simply told me to “Have a good weekend.” I’d take a break from grading to spend a few seconds giving thanks for these small breakthroughs, make a mental gratitude list for the day before going to bed or playback these moments during a 10-minute morning meditation. What matters is that these encouraging moments don’t slip away. All of this illustrates ways that we as instructors can be exemplars for our students.
Nurture students’ mindfulness practices
Mindfulness practices can be an antidote to students facing traditional pressures (e.g. to fit in and to succeed) as well as newer pressures (e.g. information overload and a sense of isolation), according to Janice Wall (2014) who started teaching a course called “A Holistic Approach to Healing” in 2004. In the freshman psychology course at Lesley University, Wall begins each class with a one- to two-minute mindfulness practice. An emphasis on mindfulness is also evident in the assigned use of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s best-seller Wherever You Go There You Are as required reading in Wall’s course. In response to these actions, Wall writes that students report a level of relaxation that sets the tone for the day and a better ability to focus on the present.
Educators at Penn State are using methods for cultivating relaxation and heightened focus such as starting class with a guided meditation, encouraging students to take note of their thoughts for a moment before writing, leading students through standing yoga poses and conducting deep-breathing exercises before exams. To further nurture students’ fledgling mindfulness practices while teaching a course, I invited doctoral students to speak about mindfulness research. The doctoral students offered meditative techniques to the students who then wrote an article summarizing the talk in the remaining class time. The topic resonated with students as the stress of finals week approached. My students appreciated a topic that was out of the norm as well as the brisk deadline that wouldn’t be hanging over their heads for weeks. The assignment itself was a significant exercise in mindfulness given that effectively writing on a tight deadline requires an intense focus on the task at hand. Introducing students to the concept of mindfulness through texts and lectures along with opportunities for them to put principles into practice in class can make the benefits more immediate and profound.
Create a space for reflection and questions
Mindfulness creates a place where inquisitive students can have their curiosity satisfied and their pathways to worthwhile reflection opened. Uhl and Stuchul (2011) urge instructors to make eye contact, smile and greet students in a genuine way, and to avoid judging, blaming and labeling students who have not met our expectations for behavior or objectives of performance. They recommend shared agreements with students, such as a class mission statement, and building discussions on a model of speaking and listening rooted in compassion.
When students turn questions inward through reflective exercises it “can promote resiliency and resourcefulness in the face of life’s dynamic challenges and encourage habits of individual and collective attention and analysis” (Rogers, 2001, p. 55). The analysis completed by Rogers (2001) explored methods such as journaling, role modeling and questioning, and advocates for personal and professional reflection through individual and group activities as well as with a mentor. In order to create an open space for reflection and inquiry in my own practice, I prompted students to reflect weekly on what’s going well in my teaching of the course, what needs to be improved, and what topics they want to see covered more by having them anonymously share their thoughts on sticky notes. This encouraged students to analyze their experience and conveyed a level of trust, allowing them to play a role in shaping the course. I received input on the topics that are most challenging to the students, ways I could improve my delivery and aptly timed compliments on my strengths as an instructor.
In conclusion, instructors willing to create stillness and heightened awareness in students, as well as in themselves, may appear to be following a trend or subscribing to new age notions of well-being, but evidence suggests that a stressed-out generation is finding real benefits through a mindfulness-based approach to education. By nurturing themselves with a personal practice, leading students to techniques that are useful inside and outside of class, and creating a welcoming space for reflecting on the journey, educators can empower today’s college student.
Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2017). 2016 Annual Report (Publication No. STA 17-74). Retrieved from https://sites.psu.edu/ccmh/files/2017/01/2016-Annual-Report-FINAL_2016_01_09-1gc2hj6.pdf
Dvořáková, K., Kishida, M. Li, J., Elavsky, S., Broderick, P.C., Agrusti, M.R., & Greenberg, M.T. (2017). Promoting healthy transition to college through mindfulness training with first-year college students: Pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of American College Health. Jan 11: 1-9. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2017.1278605.
Haynes, D.J., Irvine, K., & Bridges, M. (2013). The blue pearl: The efficacy of teaching mindfulness practices to college students. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 33, 63-82. doi: 10.1353/bcs.2013.0015
Harris, A.R., Jennings, P.A., Deirdre, A.K, Abenavoli, R.M., & Greenberg, M.T. (2015). Promoting stress management and wellbeing in educators: Feasibility and efficacy of a school-based yoga and mindfulness intervention. Mindfulness, 7(1), 143-154. doi: 10.1007/s12671-015-0451-2
Rogers, R.R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26(1). doi: 10.1023/A:1010986404527
Uhl, C. & Stuchul, D. L. (2011). Teaching as if Life Matters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Wall, J. M. (2014). Finding an inner voice through silence: Mindfulness goes to college. Journal of College and Character, 15(2), 133-140. doi: 10.1515/jcc-2014-0017
Zimmerman, B. (2017). Holistic education group looks to sustain the ‘light and passion’ of teaching. Penn State News. Retrieved from http://news.psu.edu/story/453691/2017/03/10/holistic-education-group-looks-sustain-light-and-passion-teaching