contributed by: Luke Wolcott
go back to category: Mindfulness

Summary


In several of my courses I have used short 1-2 minute mindfulness activities at the beginning of class.

Class information


I have done these activities in five courses at Lawrence (and two when teaching at the University of Washington): Calculus I, II, and III, Applied Calculus I, Foundations of Algebra, and Differential Equations. Lawrence is a small liberal arts college, and UW is a large public research school. Classes were 15-35 students.

Logistics


The activities take 1-2 minutes out of the 70-minute class (50-minutes at UW), which meets MWF. I usually start them a third or halfway through the term, so that the students have settled in (and, I tell myself, so that I’ve established some authority and credibility).

Description of activity


In my latest version, I use a bell. I shut the door, walk to the front desk, unveil the bell from a shawl… and by now the students know what is coming and have already begun to settle. I hit the bell, and read from a prompt. The prompt is sparse and leaves time for silences. My style is to say a few sentences and pause… when I think their minds have probably wandered I read a few more and then pause… and like this the time passes. I occasionally use my phone to keep track of the time. When time is up, I hit the bell again, and then stand up and begin the day’s class.

The prompt changes every week on Monday (and we meet MWF). The first week’s activity takes 1 minute. Later, I go up to 1.5 minutes, and then to 2 minutes.

You can read the prompts that I use here (and feel free to use them and adapt them). As my background is in vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka, I tend towards minimalism in my instructions.

Comments


Students usually settle into the routine after a week or 1.5 weeks. The hardest part is knowing how to introduce the activity for the first time.

In some courses, I’ve prefaced it by explaining some of the research out there, showing these sorts of activities can improve one’s ability to focus, to handle stress, etc., even with a very brief minimal routine.

In other courses, I’ve intentionally neglected to mention the potential benefits, preferring to avoid this quantification and its implicit consumerist approach to performance enhancement.

I have switched to referring to the activity as a “mindfulness activity” and not as “meditation.” But the students refer to it as meditation when they give feedback, so I’m not fooling anyone.

In all classes, I make it clear that the activity is optional, and students can skip it as long as they sit quietly. In all classes, students have also had an online weekly feedback survey to complete, and I encourage them to let me know what they think, especially if they have issues or concerns. (These feedback surveys are not anonymous, but I remind them there is also an anonymous feedback link on the course website.)

By changing the prompt only each week, I hope to help the students become comfortable with the instructions, and settle in. My inclination is to de-emphasize my instructions, so they can focus on what is changing: the contents of their minds. Each week’s new instructions carry pieces over from previous weeks, making small manipulations; some sentences are given almost every week.

Starting out, it felt important and reassuring to work from very prescribed prompts. Over time, I’ve shifted towards seeing my prompts as flexible units to be combined and rearranged as seems appropriate. Leading the activity becomes a structured improvisation, as I tune in to the class.

Background/Theory


These sorts of mindfulness activities are common and becoming more so, in education, business, sports, etc. I believe the biggest hurdles to bringing them into the math classroom are: (1) choosing or creating prompts, and (2) building the confidence to try it out.

My earlier experiences with mindfulness activities in math courses are discussed in a paper, On Contemplation in Mathematics, that appears in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.

Feedback/Assessment


Some students don’t participate, usually one or two in a class of 25. They spend the time on their phones, usually. But the rest of the class seems to engage the activity fully. During the activity, the classroom is an ocean of calm and quiet, as anyone who has led this sort of activity will recognize.

In their mandatory weekly feedback surveys, most do not mention the meditation. But when they do (about once a week per class), comments have only ever been positive. This is anecdotal evidence, but does inspire confidence.

Here are some representative examples:
  • Also, I really enjoy the meditation openings it really makes me grounded for what information is going to be presented next.
  • A nice way to start class.
  • liked the activity could focus clearly on course.
  • Thoroughly enjoyed the practice and found it very helpful after multiple classes. Would be a pleasant practice before every class.

In one term, on our institutional course feedback form, I added a question about the mindfulness activities. Out of ten responses, 6 said the activity was “extremely helpful,” one said “very helpful”, two said “moderately helpful,” none said “slightly helpful,” and one said “not helpful at all.” That one student, who apparently did not buy in, made the following negative comment:

“I personally did not participate in the meditation. This is not because I do not like meditation, but because 2 minutes are not enough. In my opinion the meditation should not happen during class, as it can not happen to an extend that is actually helpful. The idea is great though!”