Since 2013, I have taught courses on Race and Ethnic Relations at a public university in Louisiana. As a new instructor, I often struggled to lead discussions on race and racism. Our country’s legacy of white supremacy means that teaching about racism is challenging for many reasons. First, students’ mental models of contemporary race relations are often shaped by their political beliefs and/or their own lived experiences of the world. Second, most students don’t have much experience discussing race and racism, meaning that they lack important vocabulary and listening skills to have productive conversations about this highly political topic.
In my early years of teaching, I regularly had to deescalate confrontations between students. Occasionally, I even had students storm out of the classroom. Despite my best efforts and intentions, my classroom was a hostile environment. I was stressed, students were frustrated, and something had to change.
In 2016, after another student outburst, I decided to try something new – starting each class session with meditation. I had been practicing yoga and meditation for about a year, and I was well aware of the benefits. I thought that starting the class session with meditation would allow students to “let go” of anything they brought into the room with them. More importantly, I wanted to establish an environment that recognized our shared humanity and promoted mutual respect. I decided Metta or loving kindness meditation would be the perfect fit. So, I began the next class session by reading a simple Metta meditation script. The effects were instant. The students and I were less tense, and for the rest of the semester, we had difficult conversations without diminishing one another.
Building on my initial success, I added additional mindfulness practices in the following semester. I still begin each class session with a meditation, and I also assigned students reflective journals which encouraged them to center their personal biography as sources of knowledge and interrogate their experiences. Finally, I incorporated a variety of active listening exercises. In these practices, students shared their knowledge/experiences and learned to listen to understand rather than respond to one another.
As an instructor, I was completely sold on my decision to include mindfulness in the classroom, but I never asked my students what they thought. In 2017, I knew that I had to get their feedback.
I developed a survey instrument to assess students’ perceptions of meditation, reflective journaling, and active listening. Specifically, the survey asked students what effects they thought these practices had on their learning. I included both fixed response and open-ended questions. The open-ended questions allowed students to describe their experiences and perceptions in their own words, filling in the gaps that Likert scales can leave. I received IRB approval for the project and trained my research assistant on the data collection and entry procedures. At the end of the semester, my assistant administered the surveys and entered responses into a data set. I analyzed the quantitative data using Stata and worked with my research assistant to complete the thematic analysis of the open-ended responses. This is what I learned.
86% of students reported that practicing meditation helped them learn.
“[Meditation] really helps me view the material objectively rather than thinking in a way that pits me for or against it.”
“The practice of meditation has helped my learning in this course because it allowed me to stop stressing for the time being and fully apply myself to class.”
“[Meditation] has helped me to become less easily irritated and more willing to be patient with others and listen to what they have to say.”
67% of students stated that reflective journaling supported their learning in the course.
“Reflective journaling really helped me in this course. This course is already an uncomfortable subject to discuss for anybody. The journaling allowed me to dig deep within myself, and I learned things about myself that I never knew.”
“Reflective journaling helped me learn in this course because it helped me consider the subjects we learned about and to see them outside an academic viewpoint.”
82% of students reported that active listening helped them to learn with an open mind.
“I was less tempted to be forming an argument in my mind while someone else was speaking.”
“This course brought up controversial topics that came with diverse opinions. Actively listening to another person’s opinions created a level of respect for great class discussions.”
Surveying students confirmed my hypothesis. Practicing mindfulness was improving student experiences and helping them to learn. Students also shared stories about how the practices benefited their lives outside of the classroom. Based on the success I’ve had in my Race and Ethnic Relations courses, I now include mindfulness practices in my other courses.