Biologist Kristin Picardo, PhD, uncovered a secret to improve learning outcomes: Require students to consider whether what they are doing is working.
Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Student Research & Creative Work,St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York
PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, BS in Biology
When Kristin Picardo, PhD, and her team were applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation to support high-achieving STEM students from low-income backgrounds, she added an interesting component beyond research experience and academic support: mindfulness and mindset training.
Mindfulness involves intentionally focusing on your present-moment experience, without letting your thoughts wander to the past or worry about the future. Studies have connected mindfulness to a range of cognitive, social, and psychological benefits for students and teachers alike: For students, it supports cognitive development and learning skills such as focus and engagement, as well as soft skills such as perspective-taking and empathy. It can also promote resilience and emotional regulation, resulting in less anxiety, stress, and depression. Educators enjoy similar benefits, as well as improved job satisfaction, better ability to connect with students, and an easier time getting across curriculum requirements.
“I got curious about mindfulness because of studies [like these],” says Picardo, an associate professor of biology and director of the Center for Student Research & Creative Work at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.
The curiosity has paid off: In 2018, her school was awarded a $650,000 S-STEM grant,* which will allow Picardo and her colleagues to add to the growing body of literature that connects student mindfulness with improved retention and learning outcomes in the sciences. “We’re very excited to weave in training that teaches our scholars how to develop contemplative practices that can release the mental anchors, including stress, that negatively impact learning,” Picardo said in the report of the program’s launch.
Though the word mindfulness may bring to mind meditation and yoga, Picardo asserts that there are some academically traditional methods that prompt self-reflection, too. Here, she shares two types of writing exercises that she uses to help students improve their study skills, test results, and deep understanding of the material.
“[College is] not just about learning a subject—it’s also about improving the quality of your life. That’s why the faculty are jumping in and practicing the mindfulness exercises and training right along with the students.”
-Kristin Picardo, PhD
Course: BIOL 120 General Biology
Course description: This course examines the essential concepts on which the contemporary biological sciences are based and relates them to specific historical and contemporary developments. Major areas include scientific inquiry, cell structure and function, principles of heredity, and the processes and mechanisms of evolution. This course illustrates how the broad field of biology is constantly changing as a result of new technology and explores the application of biology, which is usually interdisciplinary in nature. General Biology provides a foundation for advanced courses in biology.
Picardo’s writing exercises for self-reflection on study habits
Picardo’s goal for the mindfulness practice that she weaves into her teaching? To help students build strong study habits and take responsibility for their own learning.
This is what she explains to students in the first days of each semester: Taking the time to reflect—while engaging in deep breathing and slowing the mind—will help students relax and be more focused on the topics at hand. She also says it is valuable for them to practice the activities together as a class, because being around like-minded people fosters participation.
Once the stage is set, the mindfulness practice begins. Here, she shares two important practices that she feels are especially useful at building mindfulness in her students.
Encourage daily reflection with color-coding, symbols, and prompts
One of the first mindfulness tasks that Picardo asks of her students is to define a space in their notes for written reflections. She first encourages them to choose a marker or symbol that will be a visual cue for this work. For example, some students draw a box in a corner of their notes; others might simply use a colored line or a symbol like a star or a circle to indicate that the next section is for reflection.
Picardo then offers questions that can prompt this reflective writing, such as:
- What is one new thing I learned today?
- What’s one thing we covered in class that I have questions about?
Students can choose to answer those prompts or write something else; the goal is simply to reflect on their learning.
Picardo says she is always curious about what the students write, but she does not specifically ask them to discuss their revelations. Rather, she wants to get them in the habit of self-assessing what their writings reveal about their knowledge gaps, study skills, or other needs. For example, as students determine what course content is still unclear to them, they should then take the initiative to seek help. She reminds them to bring these questions to her during office hours or to visit the tutoring center for outside help.
Assign an “exam wrapper” to learn from test-taking mistakes
Picardo asks students to complete a mindfulness exercise before and after each exam—what she calls an “exam wrapper.”
The pre-exam part of the wrapper is a mini survey that includes questions about what study habits and resources the student used to prepare for the exam. Students can check “Yes” or “No” to various strategies and learning activities. For example:
- Attended and paid attention in all classes
- Actively took notes and completed mini reflections in class
- Completed and reviewed any class worksheets or problem sets
- Participated in group study sessions
- Met with a tutor or Learning Assistant for help outside of class
She also has them reflect on strategies relevant to the stage of the semester they are in, such as their participation in group work or their assessment of how their note-taking skills have changed over time.
The post-exam part of the wrapper has students consider the questions they got wrong and mark why they think they missed them. For example:
- It was a careless mistake.
- I studied this information, but my notes were incorrect.
- I never studied this content.
Picardo then asks them to write about what they believe they can do differently so they can be more successful on the next exam.
While students do not hand in their everyday written reflections, they do hand in these exam wrappers, because their answers can inform Picardo’s teaching approach and improve her delivery of difficult topics in future. Picardo says that the wrapper exercise also helps students identify patterns in their study habits (good and bad) and determine key resources that they may not be taking advantage of while preparing for exams.
“They turn these [exam wrappers] in to me and then I can look at the patterns and help them figure out a new and better approach,” she says. “My exam wrappers result in one-on-one conversations, which are especially great for students having difficulty in the course.”
Picardo feels strongly that the heightened mindfulness and the resultant communications in her course have helped her students build better habits that can help them throughout the rest of their college studies and, she hopes, throughout life.
* Note: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1833904. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.