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Mindfulness and meditation: a new way to engage the classroom

A simple practice by one Brock University professor is helping foster student attentiveness and mental health.

BY HANNAH LIDDLE | NOV 21 2023

Pauli Gardner describes themselves as a feeling person who thinks, not a thinking person who feels. From what they can gather through their senses, and by paying close attention to emotions, the professor of health sciences at Brock University then begins to think and reason. That’s why Dr. Gardner was well-attuned to their high stress level on a morning in New York City, when the subway had shut down, a taxi they hailed was stuck in traffic and they arrived late to a lecture hall with dozens of public health students staring directly at them. It was time to take a minute to calm down, but instead of doing it alone, they asked the class to join them.  “Let’s close our eyes, lower our shoulders and take a breath,” they told the class. “When we opened our eyes, it was like magic – everyone was looking at me,” they said. “There was a calm sense of ‘awakeness’ in the class, and everyone was ready to learn.”

It’s a practice that is closely related to their research area, and one that they continue to implement in classes at Brock University. As a community-based researcher, Dr. Gardner has been investigating a number of questions about how to boost the practice of mindfulness and build a contemplative community on campus. “The way that I explain it to my students, and the way I understand it myself, is that we live a lot of our lives in mindlessness, meaning even though our bodies are in the classroom, that’s often all that’s there,” Dr. Gardener said. “Our minds are either thinking about the past, ruminating on something that happened at breakfast or who we saw in the hallway, or worried about the future – the midterm, or the assignment.” By using mindfulness practices such as the breathing exercise at the start of class, students and instructors have something to anchor themselves to which helps them to be present in the moment.

During the decade Dr. Gardner has been teaching, they’ve noticed an increased need for mindfulness. There are more students on campus and more distractions in the classroom, notably earbuds and smartphones. But they also point to statistics from 2016 that revealed  70 per cent of university and college students reported being lonely – a worrying trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic. This year, a U.S. surgeon general report about the “epidemic of loneliness” called for renewed efforts to facilitate social connection in schools, workplaces and in communities. “One of the things that was unexpected about the mindfulness work that I do, is building a sense of connection in the classroom brings a real sense of community,” they said. As Dr. Gardener’s work has evolved, and as university campuses have diversified, they also view mindfulness practices in the classroom as a helpful tool for improving equity. “When you close your eyes and sit quietly with other people, you show a sense of vulnerability that connects you [to others] and makes us all feel somewhat equal in that space.”

Meditation can help student mental health

While mindfulness and meditation in postsecondary education is a new research area, emerging studies demonstrate that integrating contemplative practices can result in greater psychological well-being for students, a greater degree of concentration, reduced class disruptions and improved academic performance. Such practices can go a long way in boosting student mental health, but can also build effective coping and resilience strategies that students can carry with them beyond campus. “We’re training ourselves to be present, and we can use that for the rest of our lives,” said Dr. Gardner.

While not all students are receptive to the method, Dr. Gardner said that more than 90 per cent of their students have told them that they wish “more faculty did this kind of thing.” The meditation practice has already caught the interest of a number of faculty members at Brock, said Dr. Gardner, many of whom have their own mindfulness practices – whether it be meditation, yoga, visualization or another technique – but were unsure of how to integrate them into the classroom. Some faculty use a video that Brock News created of Dr. Gardner guiding students through meditation at the start of their class, and while it’s not as impactful as meditation in-person, the practice has had a positive impact on both students and faculty.

For now, Dr. Gardner hopes to share the practice far and wide and has taken to placing a sign on their door reading “Meditation in progress, back in 5 minutes” with the hope of keeping the conversation going among faculty, staff and students.

Hannah Liddle is the digital journalist for University Affairs.

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