Today as part of the Window on Teaching series I attended a session entitled Teaching Mindfulness. It was led by Asaf Federman who is a Careers Consultant for Student Careers and Skills at the University of Warwick.
The session began with a discussion about attention in which Asaf raised the question of whether or not we prepare students mentally for learning. We ask them to attend lectures and seminars, read around their subject, write assignments and sit exams. We might run sessions or provide documentation on note-taking, academic writing or other concrete skills, but do we offer anything to help them become more effective learners? Do we teach them how to listen, or how to focus?
It seems to be generally accepted that people can’t pay attention for longer than 20 minutes, especially when we’re listening to someone speak. One reason Asaf gave for this is because we speak slower than we comprehend so when we’re listening to someone our attention jumps onto other things. We have competing processes in the brain and because we’re often bombarded with information from our surroundings we are constantly balancing these processes. At 20 minutes is seems we loose our ability to control that balance and our minds start to wander.
So what is mindfulness and how can it help?
There are many definitions and variations of mindfulness. To me it seems essentially to be about focusing on one thing at a time through meditation.
Asaf gave us three definitions:
- focusing on objects; specifically breathing, the body and feelings (both physical and emotional)
- acknowledging what comes in to your consciousness
- an awareness of what you are doing at present
There has been a lot of research into the application of mindfulness for stress relief, pain relief and improved cognition. A more bizarre study showed that it could be used to enhance the effect of immunisation.
Asaf is currently running his own pilot study into the effects of mindfulness meditation on cognition among students at Warwick. He has two groups, one who attend daily 20 minute mindfulness sessions over a period of four days, the other who over the same period attend relaxation sessions. Each group goes through a series of psychometric tests before the start of the programme and again at the end. What is expected, or hoped to be seen is that the group who have attended the mindfulness sessions show a greater change on average between their first and last test scores.
Aside from the results of the study what is also interesting is the student’s perception of how mindfulness has helped them. So far the feedback has been positive and Asaf has been asked by students in other groups to deliver mindfulness sessions to them.
I’m personally on a mission to simplify my life at the moment. I went along to the session today not only to hear about the application of mindfulness to help people become more effective learners, but also as a way of opening and clearing the mind.
Further reading (requires subscription)
- Zeiden, F. et al (2010) Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), pp. 597-605.