Matthew Brensilver, PhD

Mindfulness, Academic Performance & Test Anxiety

Mindfulness benefits people in several notable ways, including decreasing distress, enhancing positive emotions and improving certain attentional skills. Although research in education settings is just beginning, preliminary evidence suggests that mindfulness supports the well-being of youth in several ways.

testOne of the important questions about the role of mindfulness in schools regards academic performance. An intervention that might enhance emotion regulation and improve academic performance would be highly desirable. Mindfulness has generally not been studied as a method of improving academic performance. Teachers and researchers of mindfulness have primarily been concerned with supporting the socio-emotional well-being of youth. Improved academic performance has not been the central goal of mindfulness interventions.

Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that mindfulness might enhance academic performance indirectly. In 2013, researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara found that mindfulness training reduced mind-wandering, which in turn improved scores on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

More recently, Bellinger and colleagues examined the hypothesis that higher levels of trait mindfulness might be associated with diminished test anxiety, which in turn might improve math performance.anxiety Excessive anxiety and negative ruminative thought contributes to poorer test performance. The researchers reasoned that those who are higher in mindfulness might suffer from less test anxiety, thereby allowing them to dedicate their cognitive resources more fully to the math problems rather than being entangled in worry. In two studies—one in the laboratory and the other in the undergraduate classroom—the findings supported this hypothesis. Those higher in mindfulness experienced less anxiety associated with high-pressure math tests, and this in turn was linked with improved performance.

Future studies will need to examine if mindfulness confers academic benefits through rigorous randomized controlled intervention studies. Although the emotional benefits of mindfulness would be enough to justify teaching the practice, strong evidence for academic improvement would significantly impact the ongoing dialogues about integrating mindfulness in schools.


Further Reading:

Bellinger, D. B., DeCaro, M. S., & Ralston, P. A. (2015). Mindfulness, anxiety, and high-stakes mathematics performance in the laboratory and classroom. Consciousness and cognition, 37, 123-132. [Link]

Mrazek M. D., Franklin M. S., Phillips D. T., Baird B., Schooler J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776–781. [Link]

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools—a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-20. [Link]

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