- Nearly two-thirds of U.S. college students report being overwhelmingly anxious, especially as they make the initial transition to college.
- Many studies have shown that mindfulness practice in college has resulted in reduced levels of anxiety and depression.
- As the working memory decides what makes it into long-term memory, when anxiety is present very little new information is processed and stored.
- Incorporating mindfulness into the college classroom will increase learning, retention, as well as overall happiness and well-being.
Co-authored with Dr. Laurel Bongiorno
I have been teaching a college course called Mindcraft for years, which in a nutshell, is the psychology of optimal human functioning and life satisfaction. On day one, my first-year students walk into the classroom donning their new clothes and backpacks and wondering what this course with the cool name is all about. After I welcome our new recruits, the first words are—please turn off your phones and place them gently beneath your chairs. A look of mild panic rolls across the room as their thumbs wildly scroll for any last minute, life or death text messages, before logging off from the world for a whole hour and 15 minutes.
Then, we begin by brainstorming what mindfulness is and what it is not, mostly that this is about being present in this moment and without judgment of the racing, monkey-mind thoughts that zoom by while doing so. Students learn to focus on their breathing as this is an immediate neurological reset that returns the mind to the body. From this point on, each and every class throughout the semester begins with one minute of mindfulness to get centered and clear the working memory so that learning new things can actually take place.
What I cannot seem to figure out, however, is why we have been so slow to figure all of this out. There is a myriad of research on mindfulness, and yet it has become more of a pinkies-out conversation than a practical method of educating our young adults on how to remain anchored in an unpredictable world.
Without well-being, nothing else matters. In fact, if we prioritized teaching mindfulness like we do math, from kindergarten on up, just think of how this could change the world.
In addition, without a clear working memory, nothing else matters either, as the working memory decides what stays and what goes as far as information and experiences landing on the bookshelves of long-term memory. The working memory is highly sensitive to anxiety and the smarter you are the worse this is. It is like throwing a wrench into a moving bicycle wheel.
LeBlanc and Marques (2019) discuss the ubiquity of anxiety across college campuses in the U.S., with a study by the American Association of Colleges (2018) which found that 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmingly anxious during the past year. They further explain that the sharpest increase in anxiety occurs when students make that initial huge leap to college life and that these levels of stress, anxiety, and depression continue to rise through the spring semester. This is a clear indication that first-year students, in particular, are at a very high risk for threats against their well-being as well as being derailed from academic success early on.
This is important knowledge for educators to have, especially as the current generation of young adults is the most anxious and depressed the United States has ever seen. Add a splash of pandemic and all bets are off. Here is how it works. When there is any type of perceived threat, anxiety, big stress, or trauma, the “survival brain” slides into the driver’s seat to alert the mind that this is an all hands on deck situation. Very Darwinian, actually, as this is about survival. When a student is locked into survival mode, very little new information (if any) is making its way in.
Only when the mind is calm and free (or mostly free) of anxiety can the “learning brain” take the helm. Also, because our need for survival is innate, the survival-brain will always dominate. Therefore, we must incorporate a mindfulness routine into the curriculum and the classroom as a practice, to clear the working memory so that new information is able to make its way in. If information doesn't make its way into the heads of students, our efforts as educators are in vain and so is the accumulation of their often hefty college debt.
The evidence is already out there. Many studies have shown that mindfulness practice in college has resulted in reduced levels of anxiety, distraction, the rumination caused by depression, as well as increased levels of academic concentration. By learning how to focus on the mind and body with intention and allowing thoughts to unfold without judgment, students become able to disengage from upsetting thoughts and emotions. This skill is key to reducing human suffering, which primarily arises from wanting the present moment to be something other than it is (Zell, Pedigo & Conney, 2021).
In addition to all of this, I know from years of end-of-term evaluations that lots and lots of students felt awkward in the beginning and then ended up loving the feeling of calm that settled in during the semester. In fact, I have already had a handful of former Mindcrafters pop in my office this semester to visit, and they have shared with me that they are still practicing mindfulness and writing in their gratitude journals as a daily practice, a happy moment for a teacher.
The notion of making time for mindfulness in a college course may seem out of reach to some, but it is worth the few minutes in each class to allow for transitioning to the present and focusing on the work at hand.
Here are a few ways colleagues in a variety of majors incorporate mindfulness into their courses:
- Intentional Breathing. Take three deep breaths together at the beginning of class.
- Euthanize electronic devices. Place cell phones on mute or vibrate out of sight.
- Guided Meditation. Play a two-minute meditation video at the beginning of each class.
- Free-write. Begin with a two-minute free-write focused on what’s on their mind as they enter class and then put that piece of paper out of sight.
- Silence. Together, have two minutes of silence at the beginning of class to clear the mind.
- Mindfulness & Motion. There are many brief guided yoga moves on the internet that can be a great start to class.
- Body scans. Students love these, as they return the mind back into the body.
In addition to helping students focus in class, by incorporating a mindfulness routine, professors are actually providing a life skill supporting a student’s ability to transition, focus, and be in the moment in any situation.
In short, bringing mindfulness into the classroom teaches students to value their life-minutes and to spend these wisely, as if they were cash.
Dr. Laurel Bongiorno serves as the Dean of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, VT.
LeBlanc, N & Marques, L. (2019). Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope. Harvard Health Publishing-Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/anxiety-in-college-what-we-know-and…
Zell, M. C., Pedigo, T. W., & Cooney, M. A. (2021). "Come and See for Yourself": Exploration of Mindfulness Practice by First-Year College Students. The Qualitative Report, 26(1), 274+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A650643297/AONE?u=minit_train&sid=google…