Grant recipients and project team:
Nicole Westlund Stewart, Writing and Communication Centre
Wade Wilson, Department of Kinesiology
(Project timeline: September 2017 - August 2018)
The purpose of this project was to assess the effectiveness of mindfulness practices (i.e., mindful breathing and progressive muscle relaxation) in a first-year communication-based course. We assessed specific outcomes, including: writing self-efficacy, writing apprehension, general anxiety, and writing anxiety. Through engaging mindfulness practices, we aimed to have an effect on students’ overall perceptions toward their writing abilities.
We targeted a first-year communications course for two reasons. First, it is a requirement for all first-year students and teaches students how to communicate effectively at a university level. Second, there were two sections for this course, meaning that one section received the mindful breathing intervention and the other section received progressive muscle relaxation training.
The purpose of this project was to determine how mindfulness practices (mindful breathing or progressive muscle relaxation) can have a positive impact on writing self-efficacy, writing apprehension, and writing anxiety. A secondary goal was to introduce mindfulness practices to first-year students in a large classroom setting as a useful strategy that can be applied to other courses, assessments (i.e., presentations or exams), and other spheres of health and wellness.
Despite over 700 undergraduate students being enrolled in the course (distributed across two sections), only 137 students responded to both pre- and post-intervention questionnaires. This low response rate affected our ability to draw meaningful results from the data; we were only able to examine effects of mindfulness practices in general, rather than differential effects of the two conditions (i.e., mindful breathing versus progressive muscle relaxation [PMR]). Across both course sections, undergraduate students reported a significant increase in writing self-efficacy (p < .001) and a significant decrease in writing anxiety (p < .05) following eight weeks of engaging in mindfulness practices. Although these findings suggest that students showed some improvement in writing-related cognitions, we cannot discern whether these improvements were the direct result of our intervention.
Additionally, students reported a relatively low level of engagement with the mindfulness practices, only participating in the exercise an average of 4.13 times (SD = 2.53) in the mindful breathing group and an average of 3.33 times (SD = 2.44) in the PMR group (out of a total of 8 times). Psychological engagement was also low in both the mindful breathing group (M = 2.89, SD = 0.81) and the PMR group (M = 3.28, SD = 0.77), indicating that students did not feel any more mindful than before the exercise. In contrast to these findings, we did receive unsolicited anecdotal feedback from students who really enjoyed the mindfulness practices. Some students provided written feedback on their questionnaires expressing their gratitude and appreciation for implementing the mindfulness practices in the classroom. Other students requested a copy of the audio-script so they could continue the mindfulness practices on their own.
Practical Recommendations for Implementing Mindfulness Practices in a Large Classroom Setting
Despite our findings, there is opportunity to learn from our study to implement mindfulness practices more effectively in large university classroom settings. Upon reflection of what worked and what did not work in our study, we suggest the following three recommendations for researchers and instructors to consider when implementing mindfulness practices into their own classes: (1) classroom setting, (2) classroom management, and (3) audio script characteristics.
- Classroom setting: In our pilot study, the physical classroom setting seemed to play a major role in the students’ engagement with the mindfulness and PMR exercises. Our intervention took place in a large lecture hall with seating for approximately 350 students. While approximately half of the students appeared to engage in the exercise, others may not have felt completely comfortable due a number of distractions, such as an awareness of all the other people in the room, background noise from students not participating in the exercise, or interruptions by students arriving late to class. When possible, conducting mindfulness practices with smaller groups of students (e.g., during tutorials, if given the option) might be more conducive to student engagement because students might be more comfortable engaging in mindfulness exercises with less people around. This supports the earlier findings presented in the literature (e.g., Britt et al., 2017). For large classes that do not have the option of smaller tutorials, instructors could provide the mindfulness practices to students through virtual classrooms (i.e., online learning platforms) and make participation part of the course content. Overall, instructors should consider how conducive the classroom setting is to the delivery of mindfulness practices and if necessary, make any adjustments within their control to optimize their effectiveness.
- Classroom management: As with any in-class exercise, there will always be students who do not want to participate. Thus, dealing with these students can become a major issue. In this study, the majority of students who chose not to participate in the exercises simply worked quietly on their own. However, these students were often using their laptops, which caused distractions in the form of bright screens and typing noises for the students who were trying to focus on the mindfulness exercises. The challenge for course instructors is to minimize these distractions. Instructors could require students to put away all electronic devices during the mindfulness exercise and ask students to sit quietly for the duration of the exercise if they choose not to participate. To increase student buy-in and engagement during the exercise, instructors could ensure that they clearly explain the benefits of the exercise and embed it into required course materials.
- Audio script characteristics: In our pilot study, students listened to the same mindfulness exercise or PMR exercise during every week of the intervention. The fact that students listened to the same script every week may have contributed to disengagement. In addition, the students may have perceived the length of the scripts as being too long. The audio scripts were roughly eight minutes long, as this is longer than scripts used in previous research (e.g., Britt et al., 2017). Thus, instructors could increase engagement by varying the scripts each week, as well as decreasing or at least varying the length of the scripts.
Dissemination and impact
- At the individual level: Mindfulness practices have been included in other courses (i.e., AHS 100). Students in AHS 100 indicated they enjoyed the weekly voluntary participation and provided feedback that they continued to use it regularly. Students in this course looked forward to the activity.
- At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: This information has been shared at AHS Health & Well-being Committee meetings, shared with AHS Teaching Fellows, and at Department (KIN) meetings.
- At the institutional (uWaterloo) level: 2018 CTE conference (see Appendix A for conference proposal)
- At the national and/or international levels: We submitted a manuscript based on practical considerations for implementing mindfulness practices in a large classroom setting to Innovations in Education & Teaching International in April 2018. We are currently working on revisions to this manuscript and will resubmit a revised article in October 2018.
Impact of the project
- Teaching: Mindfulness fits well in Sport & Exercise Psychology and Healthy Lifestyle courses. It will continue to be included in regular teaching (e.g., using the scripts as example activities and participation).
- Connections with people from different disciplines, faculties, and/or disciplines about teaching and learning: We have shared our project at the CTE Conference, as well as providing guest lectures.
Project Reference List (PDF)