How to foster student well-being with online mindfulness training

Adam Kay explains how educators can effectively use an innovative, freely available, and research-backed online mindfulness programme for student well-being

Adam Kay's avatar
17 Nov 2021
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Advice on using a free online mindfulness programme to support student well-being

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Nearly two years into the pandemic, student well-being continues to suffer. Educators in search of effective solutions for online delivery can be quickly overwhelmed by the vast number of programmes available. An approach well known for fostering well-being – mindfulness – has an especially bewildering array of options. Despite the known benefits of mindfulness, most online programmes are commercially driven and few are substantiated by rigorous independent research. Accordingly, educators may find it difficult to ascertain which programme to entrust their students to.

In the world of mindfulness training, the gold standard is a programme called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Developed more than 40 years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, MBSR has undergone more independent research than any other mindfulness programme, and it has consistently been shown to improve well-being. However, when delivered in its traditional in-person format, MBSR also has key limitations: it requires a 2.5-hour class every week for eight weeks and it usually costs upwards of $500. This makes traditional MBSR impractical for most students, especially when subject to physical distancing.

However, a free online MBSR programme is now available, which new research shows is effective at fostering student authenticity and well-being. The programme follows the same eight-week structure as traditional MBSR, and it is open to anyone and everyone.

Instructions are pre-recorded by a certified MBSR instructor, online videos are pre-selected for streaming and written materials are freely available for download. Students can start at any time and they can engage with the materials flexibly on their own schedule.

For those who need extra guidance, an abundance of free online resources are readily available. Unlike commercial sites, this programme does not ask for identifying information, nor does it track users in any way. As such, there are no emails, no data or privacy issues, and no sales tactics. In short, the programme is 100 per cent free and non-commercial.

Despite these distinct advantages, two important aspects of traditional MBSR are not accounted for by this online programme: (1) incentivisation, and (2) social engagement.

What is the incentive to complete a free mindfulness course?

That the programme is freely available is both a great strength and one of its main weaknesses. When people pay out-of-pocket for a course, they are more likely to complete it. Without “skin in the game”, there is little cost to quitting – a temptation that is likely to visit most students over a challenging eight-week course. That is, even though this programme is open to everyone to begin, it incentivises no one to finish.

Is social engagement with an online mindfulness course possible?

While the programme does provide links to weekly meetings, it does not foster sustained and meaningful social interaction. Social engagement is important because it forges relationships that can help students feel accountable, stay motivated and learn. Indeed, social engagement is a vital aspect of well-being – particularly during a pandemic in which many students already feel isolated – so having students undergo this programme alone could undermine a key part of its purpose.

How to get the most benefit from an online mindfulness programme

It is possible to harness the benefits of online MBSR while also accounting for its weaknesses. Here are five things I have done to help my own students complete the programme, which an active-controlled quasi-experiment showed can be highly effective:

  • Students should not be compelled to take the programme, as doing so could undermine their commitment and dilute its benefits. Instead, they should be given other options and allowed to choose for themselves.
  • Students who choose this programme should be screened for signs of mental illness. Students of concern should be referred to a qualified professional before being allowed to start. If cleared to participate, educators should regularly check in on them to show support and ensure safety.
  • Students should be assigned a “training buddy” with whom to stay in regular contact throughout the programme. Ideally, they should also be placed into small groups for weekly exercises and structured discussions.
  • Students should be asked to submit their practice logs (available on the website) after each week of training. Ideally, they should also be given homework questions about the course content each week.
  • Upon completion of the programme, students should be given a reflective exercise to document and help them process their experience.

With these simple steps, educators can avail their students of the many advantages of online MBSR while mitigating its drawbacks. In so doing, they can help students better cope with the challenges of higher education – physically distanced or otherwise – and even to thrive amid them.

Adam Kay is an assistant professor in management at the University of Queensland Business School.

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