Practicing mindfulness in the classroom

Students in executive professor C. Sara L. Minard’s class participate in a five-minute mindfulness practice in Hayden Hall on Monday. Minard begins each of her classes with a brief mindfulness exercise, which she says has a “profound” impact on the overall energy levels and receptiveness of her students. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On Monday, students buzzed into C. Sara L. Minard’s “Impact Investing and Social Finance” class and chatted animatedly about the Super Bowl the night before, or opened their laptops to dash off an email, or scrolled through their smartphones. It was a scene perhaps familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a university classroom.

But then something different happened.

Minard, executive professor in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, quietly raised her hand to signal the attention of her class and said in a conversational tone, “Let’s anchor ourselves. Feel your feet rooted into the earth, feel your wing bones on the back of your chair, and we’ll start when you hear the gong.”

Her class, noisy and active a moment earlier, fell quiet, as students closed their eyes and breathed deeply. A gong sounded quietly from Minard’s phone, thus beginning the five minutes of mindfulness that Minard leads at the start of each of her classes.

Changing ‘the whole energy of the room’

She’s not alone. Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword lately, with everyone from professional athletes to Fortune 500 CEOs trying out the practice.

Sometimes people think mindfulness involves tuning out and emptying the mind, but mindfulness is really about being aware and present.

Paul Condon
Postdoctoral research associate

Northeastern’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research recently offered a workshop titled “Fostering Intellectual Agility through Mindfulness in the Classroom” as one piece in a campaign to broaden integrative learning among students. And for Minard and others on campus, the practice has become part of creating a healthy and dynamic classroom experience.

The practice “changes the whole energy of the room,” Minard explained. “It’s absolutely essential to start our time together. It’s like taking a deep breath before you start something important.”

Mindfulness meditation isn’t “about letting your thoughts wander,” The New York Times explained. “But it isn’t about trying to empty your mind, either. Instead, the practice involves paying close attention to the present moment—especially our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations—whatever it is that’s happening.”

Often this state of being present comes in the form of focused breathing and awareness of one’s own body. All the professors interviewed for this article encouraged practitioners to sit with their feet flat on the ground, close their eyes (usually), and note the thoughts and sounds they encounter without dwelling on them.

‘Notice when the mind wanders’

Paul Condon, postdoctoral research associate in psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s lab, takes an interdisciplinary approach to researching the various causes and effects of mindfulness. He also leads his students in a five-minute meditation exercise.

He described the mindset as one in which students are instructed to “notice when the mind wanders, with curiosity, and simply bring the mind back to the present moment.”

Kara Braciale, lecturer in the College of Arts, Media and Design, is another faculty member who incorporates mindfulness in her classroom.

Braciale, who teaches several sections of “5D Fundamentals,” takes a poll at the start of each course to see if students would be interested in mindfulness meditation. If the students vote in favor of the practice, she’ll facilitate a short exercise focusing on body awareness and breathing.

Unlike Minard, who leads her classroom’s practice herself, Braciale will often play a pre-recorded guide at the beginning of class.

“No one is required to do it, but I haven’t had any class not vote for it,” said Braciale, who began practicing mindfulness meditation in her classroom three years ago. “And some sections really look forward to it.”

For her and her students, it serves as a “formal transition” from the hive of activity outside to the class at hand.

“It creates this separate space of ‘this time, here and now,’ and this gradual changing of gears,” she said. More than that, it creates an environment where students are more receptive to new ideas and more willing to experiment with their own ideas.

“I think it allows students to observe and switch into another perspective more readily; it allows them to sit with something and think about it long enough until it almost becomes new again,” Braciale said. “Even just the difference in the quality of conversation is noticeable. Students are more receptive.”

Holistic learning

While the research is still relatively “young,” as Condon described it, there is a growing body of evidence (including some by Northeastern researchers such as assistant professor Mariya Shiyko in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences) that mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress and improve health, among other benefits.

I think (a mindfulness practice) allows students to observe and switch into another perspective more readily; it allows them to sit with something and think about it long enough until it almost becomes new again.

Kara Braciale
Lecturer in the College of Arts, Media and Design

Condon posited that spending a few moments before class to center one’s self can only produce positive results.

“Our students are incredibly productive, but taking five minutes to take a breath and relax before jumping into lecture or class activity might be the only time in the day where they relax for a moment,” he said. “I think it is important to emphasize holistic wellness in an academic setting. Being productive and healthy can go together.”

Distracted in the digital age

Almost all of the instructors interviewed agreed that mindfulness practices—ideas that are centuries old—have particular relevance for today’s students, who are drawn in countless directions by technology.

Joseph Reagle, assistant professor of communication studies, teaches a course called “Communication in the Digital Age,” which focuses on how to use digital media well.

For part of his class, students consider how they often use technology in fragmented, distracted fits and starts.

“We have this technology attached to the hip, quite literally,” Reagle said, “but of course we want to avoid being obsessed with anything. So, the question is, how can we best use this technology?”

Reagle doesn’t facilitate a regular mindfulness practice in his classes, but in exploration of that central question, he does dedicate time during certain lessons to intention-based exercises that encourage students “to be more aware of what they’re doing when they go online.” He also leads a short meditation as a way for students to “note what’s happening in their minds.”

Most faculty interviewed were quick to note that it doesn’t require formal training to facilitate a mindful transition at the start of classes.

“Faculty and students alike might benefit from taking a few minutes to relax and settle the mind on the present moment,” Condon said. “Sometimes people think mindfulness involves tuning out and emptying the mind, but mindfulness is really about being aware and present. Greater presence and awareness of our thoughts and emotions can be a tremendous help in making better decisions, managing work and social interactions, and so on. If accompanied with the right intentions, I think greater awareness through mindfulness is likely to be helpful most of the time.”