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Mindfulness Practices in a Developmental Psychology Class: Student Outcomes, Practical Strategies, and Future Directions

Julie Newman Kingery, Jessica A. Lathrop, Sarah M. Burstein, and Mengqi Liu Hobart and William Smith Colleges

The primary goal of this article is to present preliminary data on the relationship between undergraduate students’ participation in brief classroom-based mindfulness practices and changes in their dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being across one semester. A secondary goal is to prompt further research on this topic by outlining future research directions and practical strategies for implementation. Partic- ipants were 51 undergraduates enrolled in upper-level psychology classes at a liberal arts institution (Mage � 21.08 years). Twenty-six of these students (4 males; 10 juniors, 16 seniors) were enrolled in a class with a mindfulness component (i.e., “mindfulness group”) and 25 students (4 males; 5 juniors, 20 seniors) were in a class that did not include mindfulness (i.e., “comparison group”). Students completed self-report mea- sures of dispositional mindfulness, perceived stress, anxiety, and self-compassion at the beginning and end of the semester. It was expected that the mindfulness group would report significant increases in self-reported mindfulness traits and self-compassion, as well as significant decreases in perceived stress and anxiety relative to the comparison group. There was a significant increase in anxiety and perceived stress across time for both groups. Although the mindfulness group reported a slightly greater increase in self-compassion than the comparison group across time, the Group � Time interaction effect was not significant. Mindfulness scores did not change significantly across time for either group.

Keywords: mindfulness practices, dispositional mindfulness, anxiety, perceived stress, self-compassion

Mindfulness has been defined as “an aware- ness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmen-

tally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 145). Mindful- ness can be practiced through activities such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and inten- tionally focusing on increasing one’s awareness during everyday tasks. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs incorporate mindful- ness as a key skill to help individuals manage stress by becoming more aware of and less reac- tive to external events and corresponding thoughts and feelings (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Evaluations of MBSR-based programs with college students have demonstrated positive outcomes such as re- duced symptoms of anxiety and stress (Call, Mi- ron, & Orcutt, 2014).

Mindfulness-based interventions have the po- tential to enhance students’ learning and aca- demic performance through reductions in anxi- ety and stress. Anxiety and stress interfere with

This article was published Online First June 6, 2019. Julie Newman Kingery, Jessica A. Lathrop, Sarah M.

Burstein, and Mengqi Liu, Department of Psychology, Ho- bart and William Smith Colleges.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare in the conduct or reporting of this research. This research was supported in part by a teaching grant awarded to Julie Newman Kingery from the Center for Teaching and Learn- ing at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Portions of this article were presented at the Lilly Con- ference on College and University Teaching (2017, June) in Bethesda, Maryland.

Correspondence concerning this article should be ad- dressed to Julie Newman Kingery, Department of Psychol- ogy, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 300 Pulteney Street, Geneva, NY 14456. E-mail: kingery@hws.edu

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Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology © 2019 American Psychological Association 2019, Vol. 5, No. 4, 305–311 2332-2101/19/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000148

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cognitive processes essential for classroom learning, including sustained attention and working memory (e.g., Bremner & Narayan, 1998), as well as retention and recall of infor- mation (e.g., Cassady, 2004). Mindfulness in- terventions for college students implemented in lab-based settings have led to enhanced recall of lecture-based material (e.g., Bennett, Egan, Cook, & Mantzios, 2018). Also, undergraduates participating in a mindfulness course (eight 45- min sessions across 2 weeks) have experienced significant improvements in working memory, standardized test performance, and mind wan- dering (Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013). Given that most MBSR-based interventions tend to be lengthy (i.e., 8 –10 weekly sessions), brief classroom-based mind- fulness interventions may provide a feasible alternative. In one study with promising results, Ramsburg and Youmans (2014) reported better retention of lecture material for introductory psychology students who participated in brief classroom-based meditation exercises (com- pared to students who were instructed to rest).

Few studies have evaluated whether class- room-based mindfulness interventions lead to enhanced psychological well-being among col- lege students. In one exception, Yamada and Victor (2012) compared two sections of an up- per-level undergraduate psychology class that had “identical learning goals, materials, con- tents, and assignments described in their syl- labi” (p. 140). One section (n � 37) included a 10-min mindful awareness practice based on MBSR at the beginning of every class. The other section (control group, n � 23) did not include mindfulness and each class meeting ended 10 min early so that class content across the two sections was similar. During the semes- ter, students in the class with mindfulness exer- cises exhibited significant increases in trait mindfulness and significant decreases in rumi- nation and anxiety relative to the class that did not include mindfulness.

The aim of the present study was to add to the small body of literature exploring associations between brief classroom-based mindfulness practices and undergraduate students’ disposi- tional mindfulness and psychological well- being, which has implications for students’ ac- ademic performance. A secondary goal was to prompt further research on this topic by offering future directions and practical strategies for im-

plementation. It was expected that students en- rolled in an upper-level developmental psychol- ogy class with brief mindfulness practices would report greater increases in self-reported mindfulness traits and self-compassion, as well as greater decreases in perceived stress and anx- iety relative to a comparison group of students enrolled in other upper-level psychology classes that did not include mindfulness.

Method

Participants

Participants were 51 undergraduate students enrolled in upper-level psychology classes at a small liberal arts institution (Mage � 21.08 years, age range � 20 –23 years). The sample was 75% White, 13.5% Asian, 5.8% Black, and 3.8% Latino. One participant chose not to iden- tify his or her race or ethnicity. Twenty-six students (4 males; 10 juniors, 16 seniors; Mage � 21.04 years) were enrolled in one of two sections of an upper-level psychology class with a mindfulness component (i.e., “mindful- ness group”). Twenty-five students (4 males; 5 juniors, 20 seniors; Mage � 21.12 years) were enrolled in one of three upper-level psychology classes (i.e., focused on cultural, social, or per- sonality psychology) that did not include a mindfulness component (i.e., “comparison group”). One instructor exclusively taught both sections of the class that incorporated mindful- ness. The comparison group classes did not include any information (e.g., readings) or in- class experiences related to mindfulness and were taught by three separate instructors.

Measures

Demographics. Students provided demo- graphic information, including sex, class year, age, and race/ethnicity.

Dispositional mindfulness. A total score on the 39-item Five Facet Mindfulness Ques- tionnaire was used to assess dispositional mind- fulness. Each item is answered on a 1 (never or very rarely true) to 5 (very often or always true) scale, with higher scores indicating higher lev- els of various aspects of mindfulness (e.g., act- ing with awareness, nonjudging of experience, and nonreactivity to inner experience). This measure has strong internal consistency with

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both adult and college student samples (e.g., Bodenlos, Wells, Noonan, & Mayrsohn, 2015; Ramler, Tennison, Lynch, & Murphy, 2016). In our study, this measure was found to be reliable at the beginning (� � .89) and end (� � .88) of semester evaluation.

Perceived stress. Participants’ level of subjective stress was measured using a total score on the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale. Each of the 14 items are rated on a 1 (never) to 5 (very often) scale, with higher scores indicating higher stress. Cronbach’s alphas at the beginning and end of the semester were .83 and .81, respectively. This measure has been found to be reliable and valid with young adults across several studies (e.g., Bodenlos et al., 2015).

Anxiety. The Beck Anxiety Inventory in- cludes 21 items that represent common somatic and cognitive symptoms of anxiety. Each item is rated on a 4-point scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (severely—it bothered me a lot), with higher total scores indicating higher anxiety. This mea- sure has strong psychometric properties when administered to college-age samples (e.g., McIndoo, File, Preddy, Clark, & Hopko, 2016). This measure was highly reliable in our sample at the beginning (� � .92) and end (� � .96) of the semester.

Self-compassion. The Self-Compassion Scale (SCS) is a 26-item measure that assesses trait levels of self-compassion. Each item is rated on a 5-point scale from 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always). Items measure the extent to which individuals respond to perceived failure, feelings of inadequacy, or suffering with vari- ous dimensions of self-compassion (e.g., self- kindness, self-judgment, mindfulness, overiden- tification). After reverse-scoring certain items, higher total scores indicate greater self- compassion. The SCS was developed using samples of undergraduate students and has ad- equate psychometric properties (e.g., Neff, 2016). In our study, this measure was highly reliable at the beginning (� � .93) and end (� � .93) of the semester.

Feedback about experiences with mindfulness. At the end of the semester, the mindfulness group completed a brief questionnaire assessing their knowledge of mindfulness and related practices and the extent to which they believed that the mindfulness practices enhanced their

learning. The questionnaire was created for this study.

Procedure

After providing informed consent for this in- stitutional review board–approved study, partic- ipants in both the mindfulness group and the comparison group completed a packet of ques- tionnaires. These questionnaires were given at the beginning and end of the semester. A re- search assistant administered the questionnaires during the first 15 min of class. The demo- graphic form was completed at the beginning of the semester, and participants in the mindful- ness group completed the mindfulness-related feedback questions at the end of the semester.

Description of the Mindfulness Class and Related Assignments

The focus of the upper-level psychology class that included a mindfulness component was developmental psychopathology, which is defined as “the scientific discipline that has as its primary goal the integration of developmen- tal science and psychopathology into a coherent approach to explanatory models for psycho- pathological development” and “has become the dominant approach in the past decade for understanding the origins of mental disorders among children and adolescents” (Eme, 2017, p. 159). Emphasis is also placed on understand- ing factors that place an individual at risk for developing psychological disorders, protective factors that buffer at-risk individuals, and resil- ience. Mindfulness was introduced in Week 3 of the semester via introductory readings (i.e., Greenberg & Harris, 2012; Kabat-Zinn, 2013, introduction and chaps. 1 and 3; Salgado, 2016, introduction and chap. 1) and an overview of this topic in class. Mindfulness was presented to students as being connected with class concepts such as resilience and protective factors. Fol- lowing this introduction, the instructor led stu- dents in brief MBSR-based mindfulness prac- tices (e.g., deep breathing exercises, intention setting, loving kindness meditations, other guided meditations) for the first 5–10 min of each class meeting. These exercises were drawn primarily from the book Real World Mindful- ness for Beginners: Navigate Daily Life One Practice at a Time (Salgado, 2016). Mindful-

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ness exercises from other books on mindfulness and self-compassion were also utilized (i.e., Barbezat & Bush, 2014; Hanh, 1991, 2015; Kabat-Zinn, 1994; Salzberg, 2015; Thupten, 2015). Incorporating mindfulness into daily ac- tivities such as walking to and from class was also discussed.

Students were expected to practice mindful- ness exercises on their own at least three times a week outside of class and to record their exercises and reactions in a mindfulness log, which was turned in with periodic reflection papers. The Insight Timer app was recom- mended for completing guided meditations out- side of class. For a week-by-week outline of the mindfulness component of this class, the course syllabus, assignment sheets, and related materi- als, go to https://osf.io/6cgx9/?view_only�52ac 35eafabc44d89f08c0f2ef48e130. In addition, a Noba Psychology blog post about this class can be accessed here: http://noba.to/9m5bph7a.

Results

A 2 � 2 (Group � Time) repeated-measures multivariate analysis of variance was conducted to evaluate possible changes in anxiety, per- ceived stress, dispositional mindfulness, and self-compassion in the mindfulness group and the comparison group from the beginning to end of the semester. Results indicated that the main effect for group, F(4, 46) � .757, p � .559, �p

2 � .062, and the Group � Time interaction, F(4, 46) � 1.20, p � .325, �p2 � .094, were not significant for any of the dependent variables. However, the main effect for time was signifi-

cant, F(4, 46) � 144.90, p � .001, �p2 � .926. Results of univariate tests revealed a significant effect of time for the dependent variables of anxiety, F(1, 49) � 457.37, p � .001, �p2 � .903; perceived stress, F(1, 49) � 4.18, p � .05, �p

2 � .079; and self-compassion, F(1, 49) � 5.14, p � .05, �p2 � .095. Both groups increased in anxiety, perceived stress, and self-compas- sion from the beginning to end of the semester. However, mindfulness scores did not change significantly across time for either group, F(1, 49) � .184, p � .670, �p2 � .004 (see Table 1). Finally, although the mindfulness group showed a slightly greater increase in self-compassion than the comparison group from Time 1 to Time 2, the Group � Time interaction for the self- compassion variable was not significant, F(1, 49) � 3.23, p � .079, �p2 � .062.

Discussion

It was predicted that students in an under- graduate developmental psychology class with a mindfulness component would report in- creases in self-reported mindfulness traits and self-compassion, as well as decreases in per- ceived stress and anxiety relative to a compar- ison group. Our results did not support those predictions and are not consistent with Yamada and Victor (2012), who found that upper-level psychology students who engaged in brief classroom-based mindful awareness practices experienced increases in self-reported mindful awareness and reductions in rumination and state anxiety relative to a control group.

Table 1 Beginning and End-of-Semester Scores on Anxiety, Perceived Stress, Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion for the Mindfulness and Comparison Groups

Variable

Beginning of semester End of semester

Mindfulness Comparison Mindfulness Comparison

Anxiety .965 (.53) .705 (.57) 1.764 (.57) 1.629 (.69) 95% [.75, 1.18] 95% [.47, .94] 95% [1.53, 1.99] 95% [1.34, 1.91]

Perceived stress 2.893 (.50) 2.706 (.42) 2.973 (.42) 2.889 (.49) 95% [2.69, 3.10] 95% [2.53, 2.88] 95% [2.80, 3.14] 95% [2.69, 3.09]

Self-compassion 2.871 (.59) 3.222 (.63) 3.084 (.44) 3.246 (.70) 95% [2.63, 3.11] 95% [2.96, 3.48] 95% [2.91, 3.26] 95% [2.96, 3.54]

Mindfulness 3.111 (.44) 3.316 (.41) 3.195 (.31) 3.271 (.34) 95% [2.93, 3.29] 95% [3.15, 3.49] 95% [3.07, 3.32] 95% [3.13, 3.41]

Note. Standard deviations are in parentheses and 95% confidence intervals are in brackets. n � 26 for the mindfulness group; n � 25 for the comparison group.

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A few major differences arise when com- paring the nature and content of the mindful- ness intervention in the present study to pre- vious research. In Yamada and Victor (2012), one specific mindfulness practice (i.e., 10- min guided sitting meditation) was imple- mented. Students were initially trained in the guided sitting meditation, and then that same practice was repeated at the beginning of each class meeting throughout the semester. In Ramsburg and Youmans (2014), students were trained in a specific type of sitting med- itation (i.e., focusing on the breath and count- ing each breath from 1 to 10 and then back to 1), and that exercise was repeated at the be- ginning of each class meeting throughout the semester.

In contrast to previous studies, the mind- fulness component in the present study in- volved introducing a different practice each week throughout the semester. Although the amount of class time that was devoted to mindfulness was similar to previous research (i.e., 10 min at the beginning of each class meeting), students were exposed to a broader scope of mindfulness practices, which could have hindered their ability to master any one particular practice. Students in the other two studies practiced one particular mindfulness exercise repeatedly and therefore may have developed that skill to a greater extent. To address this limitation, future studies could compare several sections of a class with a mindfulness component with each section fo- cusing on one mindfulness practice through- out the semester to determine which practices are the most effective.

Miller, Elder, and Scavone (2017) focused on the effectiveness of a brief mindfulness exercise (i.e., a 3-min guided breathing prac- tice) implemented at the beginning of every other class meeting in a large third-year child psychopathology course. Students’ self- reported stress levels increased, and levels of positive coping and mindfulness decreased from the beginning to end of the semester. Miller et al. (2017) state that their results could reflect the increasing academic de- mands that students face from the beginning to end of the semester. Also, students in the intervention may have “become more aware of their anxious states, resulting in more avoidance coping” (Miller et al., 2017, p.

1051), and developed an increased awareness of how often they are “off-task or prone to automatic thinking, rather than focused and intentional” (Miller et al., 2017, p. 1052). This enhanced level of self-awareness could help to explain not only the findings reported by Miller et al. (2017) but also the results of the present study (i.e., increases in stress and anxiety, no change in mindfulness).

The present study had several limitations, including a relatively homogeneous sample that was small in size, was from a single institution, consisted of only students enrolled in upper-level psychology classes, and in- cluded an overrepresentation of females. Data were collected solely through self-report questionnaires, students were not randomly assigned to the two groups (mindfulness vs. comparison), students’ course grades were not recorded, other measures of student learn- ing were not included, and we did not assess the amount or frequency of mindfulness prac- tices in which the comparison group may have engaged. Students’ prior experience with mindfulness was not measured, and the comparison group consisted of students en- rolled in several upper-level psychology classes, each with a different instructor and topic. Future research involving larger and more diverse samples would allow for greater generalizability of the findings. Future studies utilizing randomization and an experimental design would also be beneficial. Students could be randomly assigned to a developmen- tal psychopathology class with versus without a mindfulness component, and measures of both psychological well-being and course performance and/or student learning out- comes could be included.

Overall, the instructor felt that incorporat- ing mindfulness into this class was well worth the effort. Despite the lack of significant find- ings, the instructor observed several less tan- gible yet valuable benefits such as positive verbal feedback from students related to learning about mindfulness. The instructor also noticed positive classroom dynamics with students appearing more connected with each other and feeling more comfortable par- ticipating in class relative to previous semes- ters when mindfulness was not included. Fi- nally, the mindfulness component of the class promoted students’ active engagement in

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their learning, which provided the type of significant learning experience that, accord- ing to Fink (2013), often results in changes in students’ knowledge and thinking that con- tinue long after a class has ended.

Additional research is needed to address the limitations of the present study and to reach more definitive conclusions about the impact of classroom-based mindfulness exercises on col- lege students’ emotional well-being and aca- demic functioning, as well as ultimately to de- velop a set of “best practices” for integrating mindfulness into the college classroom.

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Yamada, K., & Victor, T. L. (2012). The impact of mindful awareness practices on college student health, well-being, and capacity for learning: A pilot study. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 11,

139–145. http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/plat.2012.11.2 .139

Received September 19, 2018 Revision received April 25, 2019

Accepted April 26, 2019 �

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  • Mindfulness Practices in a Developmental Psychology Class: Student Outcomes, Practical Strategie …
    • Method
      • Participants
      • Measures
        • Demographics
        • Dispositional mindfulness
        • Perceived stress
        • Anxiety
        • Self-compassion
        • Feedback about experiences with mindfulness
      • Procedure
      • Description of the Mindfulness Class and Related Assignments
    • Results
    • Discussion
    • References