Developing Mindfulness as a Metacognitive Skill

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by Ed Nuhfer Retired Professor of Geology and Director of Faculty Development and Director of Educational Assessment,, 208-241-5029

A simple concept for enhancing learning is to engage more of the brain in more of the students. “Interactive-engagement,” “collaborative/cooperative learning,” “problem-based learning” and an entire series of active learning pedagogies use the concept to optimize learning. Research shows that active learning works. While frequently espoused as “student-centered learning,” advocates frequently use the active learning terms to promote particular kinds of pedagogy as “student-centered.”

However, active learning is neither the only way to enhance learning nor is it usually as student-centered as advocates claim. Whether the design occurs by the course instructor or with an involvement of a more recent profession of “learning designers,” the fact is that the emphasis is on pedagogy and on student learning. As such, they are more focused on student learning than were older traditional methods of content delivery, but the reach to proclaim most learning-centered pedagogies as student-centered leaves a bit of a gap. Metacognition is the factor missing to help close the gap needed to make learning-centered practices more student-centered.

While pedagogy focuses on teaching, mindfulness focuses on knowing of one’s present state of engagement. Mindfulness develops by the learner from within, and this makes it different from the learning developed through a process designed from without. Metacognition is very student centered, and mindfulness could be the most student-centered metacognitive skill of all.

Because mindfulness involves being aware in the present moment, it can engage more of the brain needed for awareness by enlisting the parts of the brain concurrently distracted by our usual “default mode.” Operating in default mode includes thinking of imagined conversations, playing music inside of one’s head, unproductive absorption in activities in which one is not presently engaged, or thinking of responses to a conversation while not attending fully to hearing it.

Mindfulness receives frequent mention as a method of stress management, particularly when it enlists the parts of the brain that would otherwise be engaging in worrying or in preparing an unneeded flight-or-fight reaction. The need to manage stress by today’s college students seems greater than before. However, its value to student success extends beyond managing stress to enhancing cognitive learning through improving concentration and increasing the ability to focus and to improve interpersonal communication by enhancing ability to listen.

Mindfulness has its roots in Zen meditation, which laypersons easily perceive as something esoteric, mystical, or even bordering on religion. In reality, mindfulness is none of these. It is simply the beneficial outcome of practice to develop metacognitive skill. It is simple to learn, and measurable improvements can occur in as little as six weeks.

For blog readers, an opportunity to develop mindfulness is fast approaching on September 19, 2016, when Australia’s Monash University again offers its free massive open online course (MOOC) in mindfulness. Rather than gurus dressed in costumes, the instructors are psychology professors Drs Craig Hassed and Richard Chambers, who occasionally appear in ties and sportcoats. The course is immensely practical, and the two professors are also authors of a highly rated book, Mindful Learning, which is likely of interest to all members of this particular metacognitive blogosphere. Perhaps we’ll see each other online in Australia!

**This blog contribution is a short derivation from “Mindfulness as a Metacognitive Skill: Educating in Fractal Patterns XLVII” by the author and forthcoming in National Teaching and Learning Forum V25 N5.

About Ed Nuhfer

Ed Nuhfer received his PhD in geology from University of New Mexico, and served as a geologist and researcher in industry and government before starting an academic career. He held tenure as a full professor at four different universities, authored publications on environmental geology, sedimentary geology, geochemistry, petrology and geoscience education, served as a mentor for hundreds of geology and reclamation students. He served as a regional/national officer for the American Society for Surface Mining and Reclamation, the American Institute of Mining Engineers and as national editor for The American Institute of Professional Geologists from which he received three presidential certificates of merit and the John Galey Sr Pubic Service Award. His book, The Citizens' Guide to Geologic Hazards, won a Choice award for "outstanding academic books" from the Association of College and Research Libraries. While on sabbatical on 1988-1989 in Colorado, he discovered faculty development and returned to found one the first faculty development centers in Wisconsin. He subsequently served as Director of Faculty Development for University of Wisconsin at Platteville, University of Colorado at Denver, and Idaho State University, as Director of Faculty Development and Assessment of Student Learning at California State University Channel Islands, founded the one-week faculty development program "Boot Camp for Profs," which he directed for nearly twenty years, received the national Innovation Award Finalist and the Faculty Development Innovation Award, from POD and served in his last full-time job as Director of Educational Effectiveness at Humboldt State University "years beyond when I thought I would want to retire" before finally retiring in 2014. He has authored over a hundred publications in faculty development, and served as an invited presenter and featured speaker of workshops for The Geological Society of America, POD, AAC&U, WASC, Lilly Conferences, and as an invited presenter of workshops and keynotes on faculty development and assessment for many universities and conferences. He continues to work from as a writer and researcher, as a columnist for National Teaching and Learning Forum for which he has written Developers' Diary for over twelve years --a column based on the unique theme of using fractals and chaos as a key to understanding teaching and learning. Ed remains on as a member of the editorial review boards for several journals and publishers and is winding up a seven-year project with colleagues as principal investigator in developing and testing the Science Literacy Concept Inventory.