Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology Courses
Jennifer A. McCabe & Dara G. Friedman-Wheeler
As part of a college-wide “theme semester” on mindfulness in spring 2016, we incorporated mindfulness into four psychology classes. Here we share our experiences with regard to course design, assignments and activities, and student feedback. For instructors who are considering including mindfulness and/or meditation in psychology courses, we conclude with a reflection and overall assessment of what went well and what could be modified for the future, integrated with the results of our research on mindfulness in the college classroom.
Defining Mindfulness and Its Relevance to Education
A prominent definition of mindfulness in contemporary psychology is “paying attention… on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Mindfulness has received much attention recently, in the research literature and elsewhere (for an overview, see Curtiss & Hofmann, 2017). Studies have suggested benefits of mindfulness to physical health (e.g., pre-hypertension; Hughes et al., 2013), mental health (e.g., subjective well-being; Sedlmeier et al., 2012), and cognitive performance (e.g., working memory; Mrazrek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013).
Increasingly, researchers are studying mindfulness activities in elementary and secondary schools (e.g., Black & Fernando, 2014; Britton et al., 2014; Mindful Schools, 2017). Research is just beginning to emerge on the effects of mindfulness in the college classroom (e.g., Helber, Zook, & Immergut, 2012; Ramsburg & Youmans, 2014).
In the next two sections, each author provides a first-person narrative of her experiences integrating mindfulness into psychology courses.
Cognitive Psychology Courses (JM)
I approached this semester with enthusiasm about mindfulness, but a lack of experience. I decided to commit to a regular practice of mindfulness exercises (10 minutes daily) using Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/), which helped bring a degree of authenticity (and confidence) to my courses, and also personal benefit in terms of well-being and focus.
In integrating mindfulness into Cognitive Psychology, a mid-level undergraduate course, I added a section that defined mindfulness to my syllabus, connected mindfulness to other topics in the course (e.g., perception, attention, memory, decision-making), and invited students to engage in meaningful study and practice of mindfulness throughout the semester. I added a course learning objective connecting mindfulness to metacognition: “Improve your metacognitive skills (knowing what you know, learning how to learn), through traditional book learning and through mindful practice and reflection.” (Syllabi for courses discussed in this essay are available by request.)
On the first day of class, I asked students questions about mindfulness to gauge pre-existing knowledge and practice, before their first mindful meditation exercise (Day 1 of Headspace). At least once per week, class included 5-10 minutes of guided mindfulness exercises. To prepare students, I asked them to arrive on time, to listen to instructions, and to be still and quiet during the meditation time. I assured them that it was okay not to engage in meditation. I emphasized that in addition to possible personal benefits, the exercises might provide insight into research we would read on mindfulness and cognition.
Throughout the semester, I chose short guided exercises for class use, including several from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22) and Mindfulness for Teens (http://mindfulnessforteens.com/guided-meditations/). Some were sitting exercises and some were standing; some had longer periods of silence and some were narrated throughout. Whenever possible, I connected the mindfulness activity to the course topic (e.g., body scan meditation for Attention; guided visualization for Visual Imagery). One day we went outside and I guided students through an exercise to focus on aspects of the environment (e.g., colors, shapes, movement; from a training session with Dr. Philippe Goldin).
Regarding assessment, I revised my existing article summary and reflection assignment to focus on research that related mindfulness/meditation to course topics. For each article, students completed this form and engaged in group discussions during class. I quickly discovered that there were not many published articles about the impact of mindfulness on cognition that were appropriate for students in a mid-level undergraduate course.
For the topics Perception and Attention, I assigned half the students an article about enhancing visuospatial processing using varieties of meditation (Kozhevnikov, Louchakova, Josipovic, & Motes, 2009), and the other half an article about improvements in perceptual discrimination and sustained attention following meditation training (MacLean et al., 2010). With respect to Memory, I assigned half an article about how brief mindfulness training can improve verbal GRE performance as mediated by enhancing working memory (Mrazek et al., 2013), and the other half read about increases in false memory after meditation (Wilson, Mickes, Stolarz-Fantino, Evrard, & Fantino, 2015). For the final topics in the course, Reasoning and Decision-Making, students read an article about reductions in the sunk-cost bias after meditation (Hafenbrack, Kinias, & Barsade, 2014).
When I compared responses to mindfulness questions on the first and last days of class, the percentage of students providing a reasonably accurate definition of mindfulness jumped from 10% to 68%, and the percentage listing cognition-related benefits of mindfulness went from 17% to 59%. However, there was no change in the reported practice of mindfulness/meditation, nor in the perceived importance of the scientific study of mindfulness.
I also incorporated mindfulness into my upper-level course, Seminar in Cognition, Teaching, and Learning. I began this class with an assignment to watch Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk as an orientation to mindfulness (https://www.ted.com/talks/andy_puddicombe_all_it_takes_is_10_mindful_minutes?language=en); to watch the introductory Headspace video; and to complete Day 1 of Headspace’s free “Take 10” program. Students were asked to commit to 10 minutes of guided meditation per day for the next 10 days, then to submit a written reflection. In their reflections, every student expressed openness to the possibility of trying meditation, and for all but 2 students (out of 18), this would be their first experience with it. However, their reflections after 10 days were less encouraging – due perhaps more to time management issues than anything. Although it was a required assignment, many did not find time to complete the program.
Later in the course, I assigned articles focusing on mindfulness and meditation. Students read an article about the neuroscience of mindfulness and mind-wandering, with implications for education (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, & Singh, 2012). They also read and discussed the article on working memory and GRE performance used in Cognitive Psychology (Mrazek et al., 2013). This class day was purposefully scheduled to coincide with Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang’s on-campus lecture, which students were encouraged to attend.
About five weeks into the semester, we launched a collaborative class project to collect an annotated reference list of resources on mindfulness for educators. Students used library and web applications to search for resources, then built a shared document. The final product was a 16-page file containing primary research articles, review/critique articles, books and book chapters, popular press articles, and web sites relevant to the topic of Mindfulness and Education (http://blogs.goucher.edu/themesemester/files/2016/04/Mindfulness-and-Education-Resources-Sp16.pdf).
Though I did not collect formal data in this course, students generally demonstrated interest and enthusiasm. Even given the density of some of the readings on mindfulness, there was a good amount of energized discussion. Also, I was impressed by their active participation in the collaborative project and felt this was a meaningful and authentic learning experience.
Health and Clinical Psychology Courses (DFW)
Mindfulness seemed a natural fit for my mid-level course in health psychology. Indeed, the topic had come up organically in years past, through a project in which students choose a health behavior to change, using empirically-informed strategies – many students chose to adopt a meditation practice. Spring 2016 was no exception, as several students took on this challenge, availing themselves of tools and apps (e.g., Headspace, Calm) as part of their strategic behavior change project.
I incorporated a mindfulness-related learning objective into the course: by the end of the semester, students should be able to “describe mindfulness and its health-related benefits.” Mindfulness was woven into several sections of the course. At the start of the course, where we usually focus on what health psychology is, students also read a brief overview of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), allowing us to operate from a shared conceptualization of mindfulness and to relate it to mental and physical health.
The health psychology course includes a community-based learning component in which students work collaboratively with staff from Hopewell Cancer Support (a local organization providing psychosocial services to those affected by cancer – including some related to mindfulness), to address particular challenges faced by the non-profit. Because of this collaboration, we discuss cancer early in the class, as well as the research on psychosocial interventions for cancer. Here students read and discussed an article on Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery (Tamagawa et al., 2015). Later in the class, as part of our stress and coping topic, we read and talked more broadly about mindfulness and health, reading a review article on mindfulness-based treatments (and research on their effectiveness) for a variety of health conditions (Carlson, 2015). These readings were brought into the classroom in a variety of ways: sometimes we would discuss the articles as a large group, or in small groups. Sometimes I would start class by projecting a short list of thought questions on the screen about the reading and would ask students to write for a minute or two about each question, before getting into groups to discuss one of the questions in more depth.
Throughout the semester, the mindfulness-related events on campus were brought into the class, through an “event-reporting” assignment. Specifically, students were asked to sign up to attend one of 6 events on campus or in the community during the semester (four of which were mindfulness theme semester speakers Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, Omid Safi, Alicia Garza, and Dan Siegel), and to report back to the class about what they had heard. Their reports were informal and included (a) biographical information about the speaker (obtained from the event or through Internet research), (b) the main point or points of the talk, (c) the types of “evidence” used to make those points (case examples, personal experience, research…), and (d) how the event related to the field of health psychology or to specific topics covered in class.
I conceived of the “event reporting” assignment as a way to encourage attendance at these events without insisting that all students attend them all (unrealistic, given schedule constraints), and as a way for the whole class to get some benefit from each talk. In addition, I wanted students to think actively about the events they attended, including identifying the speaker’s main point(s) and the different types of arguments that can be made (based on different “ways of knowing”). I was so pleased with this assignment that I have used it again since.
During the theme semester I also taught an upper-level course, Seminar in Clinical Psychology: Emotion Regulation, which has always included readings about, experiential activities with, and discussion of mindfulness. During the mindfulness theme semester, I incorporated mindfulness into one of the existing learning objectives, stating that students would be able to “discuss a variety of emotion regulation strategies (including mindfulness) and evaluate their adaptive and maladaptive aspects.”
In previous iterations of the course, I had introduced students to the practice of mindfulness by conducting part of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (2006) eating meditation (mindfully attending to a raisin). This semester, I increased the experiential coverage of mindfulness, inviting the class to engage in “Mindful Mondays,” a collection of activities that allowed us to try a variety of purported mindfulness inductions, and to compare and contrast them. I started a shared document and invited students to construct the list of activities collaboratively. Several students added activities but requested that I (or a guide on a video) lead the class through them (e.g., a brief chair-yoga routine intended for the workplace); others proposed activities that they led themselves (e.g., a walking meditation, based on an experience a student had had at a monastery while studying abroad). The ultimate list included activities from the more traditional raisin meditation and a body scan to “mindful creative expression” and coloring. We sometimes left our seats (to do yoga or sit on the floor), and we sometimes left the classroom (to do the walking meditation on the campus’s labyrinth).
These exercises were voluntary; students could arrive five minutes late to class on any given Monday, if they did not wish to participate in an activity. Generally, though, attendance was excellent, and students seemed enthusiastic about Mindful Mondays (indeed, I proposed such a thing to my seminar the subsequent semester, and they, too, chose to partake). Discussions following the practice focused on topics such as whether or not the effects of the exercises felt subjectively like mindfulness (per the attentional and attitudinal components of the definition), whether or not there might be inadvertent harms associated with these activities, whether some people might benefit from some types of mindfulness more than others, and what characteristics might predict positive experiences with which activities.
During the theme semester, the class dug more deeply into the scholarly literature on mindfulness, as well. The class has long included a reading on third-wave cognitive behavioral interventions that provides a nice overview of mindfulness as it is incorporated into these treatments (Baer & Huss, 2008). This semester we also read pieces focused on the emotional benefits of mindfulness (Arch & Landy, 2015) and on mindfulness and emotion regulation (Corcoran, Farb, Anderson, & Segal, 2010; Leahy, Tirch, & Napolitano, 2011).
Near the end of the semester, I asked students to create “concept maps” of mindfulness, in an attempt to integrate the varied aspects of mindfulness that we had read about, discussed, and experienced. Students worked on blank paper, and then volunteered to have their concept maps projected, so that the class could discuss the various components of mindfulness and associated constructs. While each of these concept maps was of course different, they all reflected the complexity of the concept, and I believe that by the end of the semester students showed substantial improvement in their understandings of the construct of mindfulness as used in contemporary clinical psychology.
Our Research, in BriefSeparate from the theme semester courses, we have conducted systematic research on mindfulness in the college classroom (importantly, no data were collected during the theme semester). In our study, students in psychology, chemistry, peace studies, and English classes followed a 5-minute guided meditation (an edited mp3 file; Kabat-Zinn, 2005, used with permission) at the start of class. Within-subjects analyses found no benefits for working memory, content retention, mindful awareness during class, or elaboration, at the end of a 4-week period in which students followed the guided meditation, as compared to a 4-week period in which they did not. While we refer interested readers to the full research report (Friedman-Wheeler et al., 2017), we want to share some thoughts about how such an exercise might be beneficial, with adjustments.
For one, it may be that students who weren’t interested in participating actively did not (although they did sit quietly during the meditation period). It may also be the case that five minutes is not the appropriate dose of meditation for the classroom. Perhaps one minute of silent meditation would be better-suited to the classroom setting (and feel more do-able to students). On the other hand, perhaps five minutes three times a week is an insufficient dose, though a larger dose would consume more class time than instructors might wish.
Perhaps student buy-in and benefit are enhanced when more context is provided, as was done in the theme semester courses described in this essay. There is an obvious risk of demand characteristics, but perhaps those with a greater understanding of mindfulness might derive more benefit from it than those who participate in an exercise without fully understanding why.
Conclusion: Opportunities and Challenges for
Mindfulness in Psychology Courses
From an academic perspective of encouraging undergraduate students to learn about the science of mindfulness, readers should bear in mind that the level and quality of available readings are varied. For example, while there is ample scholarly work on mindfulness in clinical and health psychology, there is less research suitable for undergraduates related to cognition. Overall, there is a need for more research on mindfulness and learning in higher education. As noted above, the results of our research study suggest no measurable impact of brief in-class interventions on variables related to academic performance, though others have found benefits (e.g., Helber, Zook, & Immergut, 2012; Ramsburg & Youmans, 2014).
From a class-time-management perspective, we experienced challenges balancing mindfulness exercises with other activities and content. We found that exercises between two and ten minutes long can work well–and incorporating mindfulness is made far easier by the availability of short mindful meditation exercises online, including those that can be guided by the instructor, and those that are pre-packaged to be presented in video and/or auditory format.
From a student-engagement perspective, we found that many students were “on board” with the idea of using a small amount of class time to practice mindfulness. However, some seemed disengaged.
From a student mental health perspective, though there is research suggesting mindfulness practice may lead to improved mental health, we also noted the potential for negative affect–irritation or boredom, or in some cases, perhaps feelings of being overwhelmed (as might happen to some survivors of trauma; Briere & Scott, 2012). We handled these possibilities in this several ways: (1) permitting students to not attend the mindfulness portion of class and/or to leave the room as needed; (2) reminding students that no one can be forced to meditate, and that they can choose to ignore the instructions and sit quietly during the exercises.
In sum, there are many opportunities for bringing the science and practice of mindfulness into the undergraduate classroom, and the potential seems great. There are, however, challenges to be explored and better understood, as we seek creative ways to connect our students with mindfulness so that they might benefit from it intellectually and personally.
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Dara G. Friedman-Wheeler is a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Goucher College, in Baltimore, MD. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from American University in Washington DC. She teaches courses on psychological distress and disorder (abnormal psychology), health psychology, quantitative research methods, and emotion regulation, as well as serving as core faculty for Goucher’s public health minor. She has experience working with patients in the public sector with presenting problems such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, suicidality, chronic pain, chronic illness, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders. She has co-authored empirical journal articles and the book Group Cognitive Therapy for Addictions (with Drs. Wenzel, Liese, and Beck), served as associate editor for the SAGE Encyclopedia of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology, and has received several awards from the National Institutes of Health. Her interests are in the areas of coping, health, addictions, behavior change, cognitive therapy and mood disorders.
Jennifer A. McCabe is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Center for Psychology, at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. She earned her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches courses on human cognition, as well as introductory psychology. Her research focuses on memory strategies, metacognition, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. She has been recently published in Memory and Cognition, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Teaching of Psychology, Instructional Science, and Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research. Supported by Instructional Resource Awards from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, she has also published two online resources for psychology educators on the topics of mnemonics and memory-strategy demonstrations. She is a consulting editor for Teaching of Psychology.