Deborah Hendricks, NACADA Advisor Training and Development Commission member
Introducing mindfulness in academic advising has positive potential. The practice of mindfulness requires paying close attention to the present moment. Academic advisors spend valuable time learning new methods, improving their advising style, and implementing outreach but as a result, many advisors are experiencing increased stress and are unable to give full attention to connecting with their students. With practice in mindfulness training, it seems reasonable that advisors could instead experience increased ability to pay attention and decreased stress. Grimes and Renfro (2011) suggested mindfulness practice be addressed as a matter of professional development and resource to reduce burnout for academic advisors. However, the outcomes of mindfulness training in the area of academic advising have not been studied.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation and can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p. xxvii). Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but secular training has evolved more recently (Hyland, Lee, & Mills, 2015). The definition has been further characterized as both a state, where one experiences the actual moment of being fully present, and as a disposition, where it becomes part of one’s character (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Research indicates positive outcomes in short periods of practice, even as little as one training session (Mahmood, Hopthrow, & Randsley de Moura, 2016; Ramler, Tennison, Lynch, & Murphy, 2016). This is hopeful news for academic advisors who have limited time with their advisees.
Benefits for Advisors
Many people, including advisors, struggle with paying attention. Strengthening the ability to pay attention is critical, as “attention is the basis for all higher cognitive and emotional abilities” (Tan, 2012). An increase in high-tech multitasking, which includes high volume emails, instant messaging, social media, and leaping from one website to another, has affected individual’s ability to pay attention (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). An interesting study out of Harvard University used a smart phone app to gather data on what people were thinking about while engaged in the activities (e.g. working, commuting, talking, and on the computer). The study revealed that people get lost in thought or participate in day dreaming/mind wandering thoughts 46.9% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). If this inability to pay attention occurs during advising appointments, opportunities could be lost to connect with students. Nevertheless, it is possible to increase one’s ability to pay attention and increase effectiveness in completing tasks with the practice of mindfulness (Levy, Wobbrock, Kaszniak, & Ostergren, 2012).
The job of an advisor can be very rewarding, but many advisors have huge caseloads and feel overwhelmed. The attitude advisors have about their job affects performance and can influence their ability to connect and be fully present during meetings (Crowder & Sears, 2017). For academic advisors, connecting with students is part of the job and part of being effective in building relationships. The advisor’s attitude is important as “the caring attitude of college personnel is viewed as the most potent retention force on a campus” (Noel, Levitz, & Saluri, 1985, p. 17). Mindfulness can increase employee productivity, enhance employer/employee and client relationships, and improve job satisfaction (Schaufenbuel, 2014; Zivnuska, Kacmar, Ferguson, & Carlson, 2016). For advisors, practicing mindfulness could have both personal and professional benefits as it can reduce stress, anxiety and burnout, improve overall well-being, increase the ability to deal with stressful situations, and increase the body’s ability to heal (Gelles, 2012; Harnett, 2014; Kang, Choi, & Ryu, 2009; Schimke, 2017; Taylor & Millear, 2016).
Impact on Students
Most students start college with enthusiasm and the hope of obtaining a degree. However, not all students finish their academic journey and many “drop out of school because they fail to see a viable path to an end goal” (Tyton Partners, 2015, p. 8). During these times, it is vital that advisors connect with students, as “it is the people who come face-to-face with students on a regular basis who provide the positive growth experiences” (Noel et al., 1985, p. 17). Building relationships with students is crucial, as student retention rates can be impacted by quality relationships (Astin, 1993). Paying attention impacts the ability to form relationships and the “connections you form when you’re fully present—and therefore fully listening—can make the difference between someone you are leading leaving an encounter feeling heard or leaving an encounter feeling disrespected” (Marturano, 2014, p. 36). Being present in appointments and intentionally listening speaks to the student that they matter, which is important for student success (Schlossberg, 1989).
Many students are learning about mindfulness from their smart phones and watches, social media, classes, friends, and even from advisors. Simply introducing the practice at the beginning of an advising session can be enough to spark an interest, prompting them to investigate more and possibly establish a regular practice. Recent studies have found mindfulness increased adjustment to the university for undergraduate students (Mettler, Carsley, Joly, & Heath, 2017; Ramler et al., 2016). Advisors instruct students on classes to take, resources to access, and other tips to succeed, but introducing mindfulness, which can help them adjust to college, increase attention, reduce test anxiety, decrease depression, and increase public speaking skills (Harnett, 2014), just makes sense.
Professionals in higher education want to see students achieve their academic goals as they increase their level of autonomy and self-awareness; as a result, mindfulness is impacting many educational disciplines (George, 2017). Mindfulness, academia, and advising are starting to come together. Recently, Grimes and Renfro (2011) introduced tangible ways for busy advisors to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives. A Contemplative Pedagogy Community, comprised of faculty and advisors, was formed in 2016 at Bowling Green State University to explore the various mindfulness techniques professionals were incorporating into their classes. The exercises shared in the community can be used in both the classroom and advising sessions.
Starting can be as simple as beginning an appointment with the Focus for Fifty method, which is practicing mindfulness for 50 seconds at the beginning of each advising appointment. The advisor can simply ask the student to focus their attention on their breathing for 50 seconds. Another way is to have colored pencils and mindfulness coloring pages available for the student and color for 50 seconds together. On the back of the coloring page, list resources such as websites, YouTube videos, and other tips to learn about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness with a student when they first arrive allows the advisor and student a moment to experience a sense of stillness and focus. Other examples of mindfulness exercises advisors could try at the beginning of an appointment include completing a yoga pose or two or focusing attention on an object (such as a paperclip or pen), the ticking of a clock, or soft mindfulness music (free on YouTube). Other advisors and instructors used the moment to sit quietly or listen to a guided meditation from the internet.
If mindfulness training is not offered or available on campus, advisors can access free mindfulness and meditation apps online to get started and learn the basics. These apps can also be beneficial in providing introductory training to students. Most students wait in a lobby before their appointment starts; posting a sign with instructions on how to download a free mindfulness app and asking the student to listen to a three-minute guided session on their headphones while they wait could be a helpful way to introduce the practice even before their appointment starts.
This year’s NACADA Region 8 Conference (April 10-12, 2017), attended by the author, was titled Moving Mountains, Maintaining Mindfulness, demonstrating the growing awareness of this practice. Four heavily-attended sessions addressing the topic provide examples of advisor interest in learning mindfulness techniques:
- Mindfulness Preparation (Darryl Craig & Tami Goetz, Washington State University)
- Advising Mindfully (Deborah Hendricks, Bowling Green State University)
- Mindful Communication (Charity Atteberry & Grace Gradner, University of Montana)
- Mindful Advising for the Anxious Health-Profession Student (Anna Brown, Olga Salinas & Kyle Ross, Washington State University)
Advisors can initiate mindfulness training on their campus by meeting with their director to discuss options such as attending a mindfulness retreat, bringing in a trained professional to lead a mindfulness team building session, or practicing as a group with a free app or guided mindfulness training programs found online.
Many find the practice of mindfulness “embarrassingly easy” (Tan, 2012); however, the dedication to ongoing practice requires commitment. Set goals to be intentionally mindful when starting advising appointments, walking across campus, while eating, and driving home from work. Academic advising needs to be one of the fields reaping the positive benefits of mindfulness. With all the studies indicating positive results, advisors can introduce the practice with their students with confidence knowing that college students can benefit from university-offered mindfulness programs (Regehr, Glancy, & Pitts, 2013). Take a deep breath, smile, and focus on the moment.
College of Health & Human Services
Bowling Green State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Hendricks, D. (2017, June). Advising mindfully: Increasing attention and effectiveness. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]