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Why mindfulness can have surprising effects on academic performance

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 January 2020

Sebastian Boo.

Mindfulness is a popular approach for boosting well-being. Intuitively, one would expect this technique to help students do better in their university studies. 

However, my new research finds that, while mindfulness promotes wellbeing in all students – surprisingly, for some it is associated with a drop in academic performance

Why should this happen?

Systematic reviews of mindfulness research have shown that both for the general population as well as students mindfulness supports mental health and wellbeing. 

However, to date there is little research on the impact mindfulness training has on academic performance. The Mindful Student Study (MSS), a randomised controlled trial of an 8-week mindfulness training programme with students at Cambridge, found mixed effects of mindfulness on students’ academic performance (in addition to the expected moderate reduction in psychological distress). 

The mindfulness group compared to the control group had greater numbers of students with Firsts and 2.1s in their exams, but also more students with fails and Thirds. 

Therefore, for some students, mindfulness boosted academic performance, but for others it seemed to have the opposite effect. As a postgraduate researcher on the joint IOE/Birkbeck educational neuroscience masters programme, supervised by Sveta Mayer and Julieta Galante, I set out to shed light on this finding and capture different students’ perceptions.  So I led a follow-up qualitative study of a small group of students who had been part of the original experimental group.  

Half the group were relatively high academic achievers scoring 2.1 or Firsts in their exams, while half were relatively low achievers scoring 2.2s and Thirds. 

Students described how mindfulness had a beneficial impact on their academic performance, either directly by enhancing cognitive abilities such as memory, analytical thinking and creativity, or indirectly by reducing procrastination and supporting a greater sense of energy and stamina for studying. 

Negative influences of mindfulness on academic performance were less expected, with one lower-performing student explaining: 

“for me actually, I think it [mindfulness meditation] made me study less… It [mindfulness] would have an impact on my grades cos I didn’t work so intensely. Cos I would feel, I’m not enjoying this, this is becoming a burden, I’m going to stop and do something else… which has been really been great for me, but probably not great for my grades”

Another theme was increased self-awareness and self-regulation. All students felt that practising mindfulness meditation enhanced awareness of their thoughts, emotions and study behaviours. Greater awareness facilitated the ability to adopt alternative thought patterns and change study behaviours, for instance by taking more frequent study breaks. 

Greater self-awareness and self-regulation were described as enhancing the ability to study and perform academically by all but one student. This low achieving student, as conveyed in the quote above, described greater self-awareness as leading him to take more time away from his studies because his “cramming at the last minute” approach to studying caused him excessive stress. 

It would seem that, although mindfulness destresses students, it can also cause some students to study less too, to escape the stresses of studying itself. 

The findings, published in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling Research, therefore suggest that differences in students’ psychological distress and study habits determine the differing initial impact of mindfulness on academic performance. 

Students with poor study habits which cause them a high degree of stress will likely benefit more from specific study skills training rather than mindfulness in order to improve their grades. Nevertheless, mindfulness has a universally positive impact on wellbeing.  

The article is accessible at UCL Discovery. Sebastian Boo, a doctoral researcher in management and organisational psychology investigating kindness and compassion in organisations and leadership, can be contacted at  s.boo@bbk.ac.uk

Photo: Stefan Ehlers via Creative Commons

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