Every summer I spend six weeks teaching a study skills and personal development course to teens from low income families as part of a federally funded program called Upward Bound (not Outward Bound). It’s kind of crazy: every year I feel like I almost totally miss the summer because I’m teaching, grading, doing class prep, and attending various meetings. I end up sleep-deprived and completely exhausted. And the pay’s not great. But it’s totally worth it.
Part of the course involves meditation, and it’s consistently the part of the course that gets the biggest positive response in the end-of-course evaluations that the kids hand in. I’ve described the educational benefits mostly in terms of improved focus. As I like to say, you can’t take a clear picture with a shaky camera. If your mind is constantly moving around from one thing to another, then we’re not really paying attention to what we’re studying, and at best we have a blurred and distorted picture of what we’re trying to learn. At worst this picture is so distorted that what’s learned is misleading or plain wrong.
Learning to still the mind and to resist the mind’s tendency to wander therefore allows us to gain a clearer picture of what we’re learning. That’s how I’ve always explained it. Now some research has come along the blows me away, because not only does it confirm my understanding, but it exceeds my expectations of the benefits that mindfulness can bring students.
While some mind wandering is normal, it can have negative consequences for our ability to perform cognitive tasks, and mind wandering has been linked with impairments in working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. A graduate student in psychology, Michael Mrazek, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, had wondered whether targeting mind wandering could be a way to improve performance on tests like the Graduate Record Exam. And so Mrazek, his psychology professor Jonathan Schooler, and other colleagues investigated whether cognitive abilities that have historically been considered fixed — such as working memory capacity — might actually be improvable through mindfulness training.
48 college students were randomly assigned to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Both classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks and were taught by professionals with extensive experience in their respective fields.
The mindfulness class emphasized physical and mental strategies that help people to maintain focus on the present moment, in the face of interrupting thoughts and perceptions. The students were required to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities over the two-week session.
The students performance on verbal reasoning was tested the week before the class started, and again a week after it ended. The results were clear: Participants who received mindfulness training showed a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE. They also showed higher working memory capacity compared to those who received instruction in nutrition. Analyses suggested that the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering.
The amazing thing for me was that this change came about after just two weeks of mindfulness training — and also that the change was so significant. a 16-percentile boost in scores could take a student from a C to an A, for example.
Mrazek and his colleagues are continuing their research, and extending it to school age children. They’re also investigating whether web-based mindfulness training, which is accessible to a much broader population, could be an effective vehicle for enhancing cognitive performance. And they’re examining whether the benefits can be further enhanced by teaching mindfulness as part of a more holistic program that targets nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal relationships.
One of the other benefits of meditation training, besides reduced mind-wandering, is improved emotional health. The teens I teach are going through a very emotionally turbulent time in their lives, and learning how to calm their emotions and be more patient and forgiving of themselves is an important part of my meditation curriculum at Upward Bound. Hopefully further research will investigate those aspects of meditation, and how they can benefit students.[This article draws on a press release from the Association of Psychological Science.]
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