Mindfulness in Higher Education

By Jennifer J. Stanigar, PhD, Program Evaluation Specialist, OFD

The time our students spend at NC State is fertile ground for growth and transformation. Given the changes we are experiencing due to the current pandemic, there is immediate potential to create a nurturing environment that fosters positive student outcomes and ameliorates some of the negative impacts from the physical, emotional, and mental distress brought on by these changes. Could incorporating mindfulness into existing pedagogical techniques support faculty, staff, and students through the challenging months ahead?

Mindfulness can be defined as the simple act of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2017), but developing mindful awareness is like a muscle that develops through consistent practice. Mindfulness builds resilience, and helps us adjust to stressful circumstances and persevere during adversity. Cutting-edge neuroscience and brain research show that we can train our minds to be more flexible and adaptable, and that contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, can actually transform our brains (Paulson, Davidson, Jha, & Kabat‐Zinn, 2013).

On a practical level, mindfulness practice improves academic performance, psychological well-being, and builds interpersonal and relational capacities – all outcomes that support the aims of higher education to develop the “whole person” (Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2011). Yet research into the pedagogical role of mindfulness and contemplative approaches in higher education is nascent.

Contemplative pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that supports deep learning through focused attention, reflection, and heightened awareness, and includes mindfulness and other practices illustrated in the Tree of Contemplative Practices (Center for Contemplative Mind in Society). A good place to get started is the purposeful inclusion of short practices and activities that provide students with opportunities for a direct experience of mindful awareness. Here are a few ideas:

  • Send a note to students inviting them to practice deep breathing to de-stress
  • Post links to short guided mindfulness meditation videos
  • Encourage self-care breaks for exercise and fresh air
  • Provide journal prompts for reflection and affirmation
  • Create an assignment for students to write a haiku or post a favorite poem
  • Include options for assignments that include creativity
  • Suggest taking a break with meditative drawing, doodling, or coloring

Practicing mindfulness is not just for students. We know that faculty who feel stressed or burned out are less likely to be innovative or able to give their best efforts to students or to their scholarship (Block-Lerner & Cardaciotto, 2016). To support well-being and resilience throughout an academic career, faculty development programming can incorporate mindfulness training for faculty and opportunities to practice. Now more than ever we need to cultivate resilience and the ability to monitor and regulate our energy and emotions to help ourselves and our students cope with the high levels of stress and anxiety we are facing. Fostering well-being through mindfulness has significant implications for student learning and faculty well-being, as well as the health of our institution and the state of higher education.

If you have questions about starting a mindfulness practice or connecting with NC State faculty who are using these approaches in the classroom, please contact jennifer_stanigar@ncsu.edu

Block-Lerner, J., & Cardaciotto, L. (Eds.). (2016). The mindfulness-informed educator: Building acceptance and psychological flexibility in higher education. Routledge. Available online through NC State Libraries https://doi-org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/10.4324/9781315795584

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. (n.d.). The tree of contemplative practices. Retrieved from http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2017). Mindfulness for beginners. Jaico Publishing House.

Paulson, S., Davidson, R., Jha, A., & Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2013). Becoming conscious: the science of mindfulness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1303(1), 87-104.

Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., & Astin, J. (2011). Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research evidence. Teachers College Record, 113(3), 493-528.

Suggested Reading
Gunaratana, B. H. (2011). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom. Retrieved from https://www.urbandharma.org/pdf2/Mindfulness%20in%20Plain%20English%20Book%20Preview.pdf

Kaufman, P., & Schipper, J. (2018). Teaching with compassion: An educator’s oath to teach from the heart. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.

Langer, E. J. (2016). The power of mindful learning. Boston, MA: Lifelong Books.

Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.