As we begin the new year, we are faced with the prospect of continued uncertainty, anxiety, and a sector in a state of flux. In many ways, the pandemic has been a focusing event for Higher Education, compelling universities to rethink how the significant resources devoted to learning, teaching, and assessment might be reconfigured (even reimagined) to better support student learning across different modes of delivery. Indeed, the proliferation of digital learning technologies accompanying this movement has meant that we as educators have had to adapt to the demands of changing patterns of work and student learning, with the enactment of academic practice occurring across a multitude of different, inter-connected, digital, and physical environments. There is no doubt that many (if not most) students and staff would prefer certain aspects of university learning, teaching, and assessment to be different to what they are currently experiencing. But this begs the question of what kind of learning should be assumed in and through our teaching and assessments for such an uncertain and changeable environment?
We might answer that students need to be able to plan, set goals, establish priorities, as well as move seamlessly back and forth between often disparate (physical and virtual) tasks and settings. Afterall, students need to be able to think about the meaning of new forms of information and connect it to what they already know. They will need to retain meaningful information and be able to access it during tasks, often long after the initial act of learning has taken place. Students need to be able to explore interconnections between and extend their grasp of different perspectives on their learning. Furthermore, they will need to find meaning in these interconnections and perspectives, cultivating, and articulating new insights and practices.
Learning, when conceived in this way, is revealed to be inherently complex, dynamic, multi-faceted, and influenced to a large extent by the context(s) in which it takes place. And yet, our collective attention when it comes to teaching and assessment tends to be on educational effectiveness and efficiency rather than on the extent to which our approaches and strategies of choice support diverse, sustainable, and intentional ways of knowing that honour and empower learner experience and development, as well as minimise the negative consequences of stress and anxiety for our students.
It could be argued that what we teach has become less important than how we teach it. In times of increasing stress and anxiety, established practice mindsets we hold regarding learning and teaching can work against us, encouraging a quiet mindlessness, unhelpful during times of heightened uncertainty. When we act mindlessly, we act as if on autopilot, pre-programmed to act according to the practice behaviours we made sense of in the past, rather than recognising and responding to their tensions with the present. In seeking certainty and security, we tend to reach for those things – those practiced routines and interventions – we believe we know well and tend to view such situations mindlessly as a consequence. In contrast, Langer (2016) has advocated for educators to create opportunities for ‘mindful learning’. Mindful learning is a confluence of a flexible state of mind in which individuals are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and are sensitive to context. When we act mindlessly, our behaviour is rule and routine governed. When we are mindful, rules and routines may help to guide our behaviours but do not predetermine them (Zajonc, 2013). Research shows us that mindful learning can increase competent practice, memory, creativity, and positive affect – as well as decrease stress and anxiety (see Bassarear et al., 2015; Schwind et al., 2017).
For Langer, being mindful in learning is the simple act of drawing novel distinctions. Providing educational experiences that encourage and sustain contrasting perspectives, requiring a focused attention and open awareness to context and others strengthens, extends, and refines the capacity for mindful learning by way of reinforcing or challenging learners’ expectations about how things are supposed to be. To seek to develop mindful learning is to seek a greater sense of authorship, authenticity, and creativity in day-to-day working practices – characterised by a willingness to engage, to have a go, and learn; a preparedness to listen, explore and an openness to new experiences and perspectives.
It is generally understood that the expectations of HE places great demands on student performance, often leading them to experience stress and anxiety, with negative consequences for their academic success and personal wellbeing. In many cases, the competing demands of learning and teaching during the pandemic have compounded such negativity (for students and staff). Mindful learning both requires and embraces a more encompassing and flexible view of student learning development; one that attends to a number of affective self-regulatory elements that ought to be considered at the point of design – namely:
– student sensitivity to context and new perspectives,
– intentionality of attention,
– managing personal responses to tasks and feedback, and
– the willingness to think and do differently in the face of uncertain outcomes.
If it is through the curriculum, that we are to empower our students and graduates to develop the self-awareness and wide-ranging qualities and behaviours to prepare for and thrive in whatever comes next for them; the ability to think, work, and learn mindfully is surely crucial in preparing our students for increasingly uncertain future professional lives. But what forms might such a mindful curriculum take?
Bassarear, T., Byrnes, K., Cherkowski, S., Hanson, K., Kelly, J., Latta, M. M., & Soloway, G. (2015). Mindful teaching and learning: developing a pedagogy of well-being. Lexington Books.
Langer, E. J. (2016). The power of mindful learning. Hachette UK.
Schwind, J. K., McCay, E., Beanlands, H., Martin, L. S., Martin, J., & Binder, M. (2017). Mindfulness practice as a teaching-learning strategy in higher education: A qualitative exploratory pilot study. Nurse education today, 50, 92-96. [Online] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0260691716303197
Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 134, 83-94.
Dr. Sam Elkington (Principal Lecturer, Learning and Teaching Excellence) Teesside University, UK
Sam Elkington joined Teesside University in September 2018 where he leads on the University’s learning and teaching enhancement portfolio. Sam is a National Teaching Fellow (2021) and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years with extensive experience working across teaching, research and academic leadership and policy domains. Most recently Sam worked for Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) where he was national lead for Assessment and Feedback and Flexible Learning in Higher Education. Sam maintains a diverse range of research interests with a track record in developing high impact pedagogic research work in the areas of assessment and feedback, student engagement, learning spaces, and creativity in higher education. Sam’s latest book (Irons and Elkington, 2021) showcases the latest thinking in Enhancing Student Learning through Formative Assessment and Feedback.
Mindful Academic Practices 6 Questions 💬
1) What does mindful learning mean to you? And who stands to benefit?
2) What kinds of pedagogic practices and environments are best suited to nurturing mindful learning?
3) How is mindful learning supported and/or constrained by our institutions?
4) To what extent are our most established forms of assessment representative of mindless assessment design?
5) How could the technologies we use in our teaching practices be utilised to support mindful learning in students?
6) How can mindful learning be more present and more fully part of your work with students and colleagues?
Wakelet of #LTHEchat 223 🌐