Mindfulness, Stress Reduction, and Focus

Nicky Didicher

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Nicky Didicher, Department of English

Project team: Azadeh Forghani and Birgit Schwarz, research assistants

Timeframe: July 2017 to February 2018

Funding: $4560

Courses addressed:

  • ENGL 212 – (Q) Metrics and Prosody 
  • ENGL 387 – Studies in Children's Literature

Final report: View Nicky Didicher's final report (PDF)

Description: I want to find out more about how students perceive mindfulness practice, in relation to stress and their ability to focus. Mindfulness is a meditative practice of observing but not judging one's physical, emotional, and mental states of being. I introduced brief optional mindfulness sessions at the beginnings of classes two years ago, as part of a conscious effort to be more supportive of student well-being through classroom activity and course design, and have done this in five courses to date. When asked halfway through the semester, each course's students voted to continue with the mindfulness practice and felt that it helped to reduce stress, but very few students perceived any connection between mindfulness and learning, either at the mid-term or end-of-term feedback opportunity. While it seems likely to me that regular mindfulness practice improves deep approaches to learning and retention of learning, it may be that students are only able to perceive connections between mindfulness and learning after the passage of more time than a single semester. It may be that there is less connection than I would anticipate. Because a relationship between mindfulness practice and student learning is difficult to determine/measure, I would like to investigate two factors that are easier to and have a probable effect on long-term learning and deep approaches to learning: stress level, which if too high (or extremely low) is likely to have an adverse effect on learning, and focus, which is likely to have a beneficial effect. My hope is that this investigation will tell me whether the mindfulness sessions will reduce stress and increase focus for those students who choose to attend them, and whether changes in stress and/or focus levels will differ between the high-stress and the low-stress courses.

Questions addressed:

  • Do students perceive that mindfulness lowers their stress levels?
  • Do students perceive that mindfulness improves their ability to focus?
  • Are there differences in those perceptions depending on whether the course is a high-stress requirement or a low-stress elective?
  • Are there differences in those perceptions depending on whether the students were previously familiar with mindfulness practices?
  • Which factor has more impact on student perceptions of stress and focus, the stress level of the course or their previous familiarity with mindfulness?

Knowledge sharing: I plan to offer a work-in-progress or pedagogy talk in English or Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, if such a series takes place in the near future; blog posting on English Department website.

Keywords: mindfulness, stress, focus, student mental wellness