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“Mindfulness” is the hot new buzz-word sweeping through education, psychology, corporate consulting, and just about every domain of our modern lives. From the New York Times to the cover of TIME magazine and a recent TIME article, mindfulness appears to be hitting the mainstream like never before. But what does it mean? And how does it help?

As a graduate student of counseling psychology, I focused much of my research and clinical training on understanding the psychological benefits of mindfulness. In particular, I am interested in the growing body of research literature that shows how mindfulness training benefits adolescents and students in building underlying cognitive skills that enhance learning.

But before we dive in to how mindfulness helps in greater detail, let’s talk about what mindfulness is.

Here is the definition I use: Mindfulness is the act of intentionally paying attention to what arises in the present moment with a kind, open, curious attitude. Or put more succinctly: Intention, Attention, Attitude (see Shapiro & Carlson, 2009).  Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally, either through traditional techniques such as meditation, or by brining mindful awareness to everyday activities such as reading, eating a meal, or taking a standardized exam!

Research shows that when students practice mindfulness it reduces mind-wandering, enhances memory, reduces anxiety, and facilitates better learning outcomes. The growing trend in mindfulness curricula for schools is testament to how broadly beneficial mindfulness is to improving academic performance.

Moreover, we live in a world where access to higher education, funding for educational institutions, and the development of curriculum standards are increasingly tied to standardized exams. A growing body of research provides encouraging evidence that mindfulness training can level the playing field and better equip students to meet the demands of our test-driven educational system.

In particular, the specific pressure associated with standardized exams and their role in gating access to higher education, coupled with the estimated prevalence of test anxiety, provides a compelling case for complementing traditional test preparation with mindfulness training. Mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease stress, reduce test anxiety, improve emotion regulation, and have a measurable positive impact on standardized exams.

It is estimated that up to 40% of all students experience some level of test anxiety and that those who experience higher levels of test anxiety perform lower on tests and in other measures of academic achievement. In my years working as an educational consultant, I have witnessed the negative impact of test anxiety first-hand. A student who has spent all week studying hard for an upcoming exam simply blanks under the pressure of the real thing, and thus begins the self-perpetuating cycle: “I’m just not good at math, so why waste my time…”

Test anxiety as a specific form of anxiety has been the focus of a large body of research, dating back to the 1960’s. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara recently utilized a randomized controlled investigation to assess the effect of a two-week mindfulness training course on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE with surprising results. When compared to a nutrition class, mindfulness training reduced mind-wandering, improved working memory, and produced an average improvement of 16 percentile points on the GRE, an improvement that is analogous to a 100 point improvement on the critical reading section of the SAT.

Join us for our September Wellness month as we explore mindfulness and what it means for us as students, parents, and humans. 

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