Learning development: Supporting students to be mindful

Since my initial introduction to mindfulness through Ruby Wax’s (2016) A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, I’ve been meaning to reflect on mindfulness in the context of learning development. I didn’t quite get around to it. However, the publication of Cottrell’s (2018) Mindfulness for studentsfinally pushed this back onto my agenda and here I am blogging today.

Cottrell describes mindfulness as ‘being fully present in the moment’. This is framed as a pathway to greater self-acceptance and self-awareness.  Mindfulness is a hot topic at the moment. There are dozens of books on mindfulness (see: Waterstones) and even the NHS has pages on Mindfulness to promote wellbeing. Is this study-focused volume of use, or is it jumping on the bandwagon?

BrainA quick answer here – a bandwagon it may be, but there is a reason behind it. While it is cliche to say, ‘modern life’ is hectic and full of distractions. This is highly problematic when it comes to learning, especially in the self-directed learning context of higher education. Technology, social media and other student activities are all in constant competition with the need to study. While any form of study supports the long-term goals behind graduation, instant gratification is difficult to avoid. Here is where mindfulness may come in.

Mindfulness is often seen as an antidote to anxiety and stress, but more importantly, it can help with a number of common student woes such as problems concentrating, issues with maintaining attention or coping with difficult situations. I think learning developers often witness these issues and address them by supporting students to manage their own learning and time, to become self-directed learners and by encouraging the use of self-reflection. While certain aspects of mindfulness may come into these activities, they are often framed under the guise of study skills. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but there may be benefits to explicitly acknowledging mindfulness and encouraging its use.

Mindfulness in learning development

This needs to be applied carefully. Learning Developers are not life coaches or therapists – but we are there to help with learning and study. While we won’t be leading students through meditation, there are certainly some aspects of learning where mindfulness can be applied.

Here are a few possibilities that come to mind:

  1. Increased awareness of learning pitfalls. Helping students reflect on their own study practices can help them identify common distractions, lapses of attention and forms of procrastination.
  2. Develop a mindful approach to study. The ultimate goal is to help students develop a positive and enjoyable attitude, often gained through increasing their self-awareness of how they see study.
  3. Embed self-care into study. Students cannot be effective in their learning if they are stressed, tired or not looking after themselves. Good habits and time management are essential here.
  4. Contextualising feedback. Helping students look beyond immediate reactions to tutor feedback and helping them reflect on learning points and future applications.
  5. Utilise as a coping mechanism for stress and revision. While it won’t work for all students, there are applications for mindfulness in the support of exam readiness and stress busting.

I don’t think anything on this list falls outside of learning development. For this reason, I think there may be space to bring in the concept of mindfulness into our work. This may even have some advantages. A lot of the above is currently badged under self-reflection, but this is occasionally seen negatively by students. Sometimes self-reflection is an area they are assessed on, and so it is too closely associated with assignments. Sometimes it is because students hail from disciplines not traditionally associated with reflection and so it is seen as an unnecessary skill. Perhaps ‘mindfulness’ will be an easier approach to stomach? Yes – self-reflection is an element of this, but at least it isn’t the leading idea. Maybe mindfulness has some element of being on-trend?

There does, of course, have to be a distinct boundary in our use of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be (and is more traditionally) applied to wider aspects of life that study alone. While these are outside of the learning developer remit for most, the points above show there is certainly a lot of stuff that we can pick up.

Stacked Pebbles. Kinda Zen


Cottrell, S. (2018) Mindfulness for Students. Red Globe Press.

Wax, R. (2016) A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Penguin Life.


Image 1 (CC0) and image 2 (CC0)

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