Critical Thinking and Meditation in Online Higher Education: A Quasi-Experimental Study

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Brief Abstract

The presentation will share a study about the effect of meditation on critical thinking skills of undergraduate students. It informs the audience about how using meditation can be effective in online courses to improve critical thinking skills of the students and prepare them to succeed in 21 century job market. 

This session received high reviewer ratings and is runner up for Best-in-Strand.

Additional Authors

Dr. Stout's professional career has been in the field of education. Mimi entered Federal Service with the Department of Defense (DoD) in Italy and has worked for the government over 35 years in various locations as teacher, education counselor, education center administrator, test developer, manager of transcript services, training developer, staff officer, technology chief, and program manager. Locations of these jobs included Italy, Kansas, and Virginia. She worked for the Army, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and for the Marine Corps. In her role as trainer, she presented sessions and papers at conferences including those on distance learning at the US-UK staff talks in Great Britain and for the Argentine economic delegation in Washington, DC. She worked on developing quality standards for approximately 25 Department of Defense schools that educate and train military and civilian DoD employees. In a previous job, she was responsible for accreditation, budget, and personnel management, while fulfilling the position of Deputy Director-Academic Dean of the U.S. Marine Corps War College. She has been an online faculty with the University of Phoenix since 2002, teaching in the undergraduate, master's, and doctorate programs. Her hobbies include taking courses, traveling, and visiting friends and family. Her degrees include Ed. D. and Ed. S. from the College of William and Mary, M. Ed. from the University of Virginia, B. A. from Mary Washington College, and M.M.D.C. from George Mason University.
Dr. Alicia Holland is a research fellow with the Center for Educational and Instructional Technology Research (CEITR). Her expertise and research spans in the areas of tutoring, spiritual studies, learning and teaching online, mathematics meditation and critical thinking, meditation and creative thinking, STEM, organizational leadership, and English as a Second Language (ESL). She also serves as one of the Lead Faculty Area Chairs for Research and teaches online School of Advanced Studies (SAS) Research and Residency Courses. Additionally, Dr. Holland actively serves on dissertation committees and facilitate Dissertation Chair Workshops. Alicia has published and presented a variety of peer-reviewed articles, research and conference presentations in all of her research interest areas. One of her peer-reviewed articles is Accommodating Adult ESL Learners in the Virtual Classroom. Also, Dr. Holland and other colleagues published an academic chapter titled: Digital Badges and Micro-Credentials: Digital Age Classroom Best Practices, Design Strategies, and Issues. Other published works include Journal Article, 'Accommodating Adult ESL Learners in the Virtual Classroom, Becoming a Better Tutor: A Data-Driven Approach to Tutoring, Expanding Your Tutoring Business Book Series, and Starting and Operating an Online Tutoring Business. Dr. Holland’s current research in progress includes studies on coaching tutors, STEM, meditation and mindfulness, and the In-Class Tutoring Method, in which involves virtual learning environments in some capacity. Dr. Holland earned her doctorate degree in Organizational Leadership with a minor in Curriculum Development from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Additionally, she earned her BA in Elementary Education and M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from Northwestern State University, respectively. She holds teaching certifications in Special Education EC-12, ESL EC-12, and EC-8 in all subjects. Outside of Academia, she is a Transformational Life Coach who travels the world sharing the message: You are Loved, You are Valued, and You are Competent.

Extended Abstract


        Eighty-one percent of employers and 79% of college students believe that critical thinking is an important learning outcome related to obtaining a job and advancing in a career (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2015).  Critical thinking is a cognitive ability requiring logical thought. Critical thinking progresses from first level thinking, gaining skills, to second level thinking or reflection, and finally to third level thinking where a person analyzes their own thought process.  Achieving second and third levels of critical thinking results in transformative thought as opposed to adaptive thought. Transformative thought requires the ability to reason, assess, and analyze, all significant factors of critical thinking.  As a student transitions from the undergraduate level to the graduate level, they need to move from skill-based thinking to concept-based thinking and move to higher orders of critical thinking (Riccio, 2015; Sterling, 2001). However, improvement in critical thinking skills at higher education was relatively small, suggesting that teaching methods for facilitating critical thinking at higher education might be ineffective (Drennan, 2010).

Meditation improves executive decision-making (Helber, Zook & Immergut, 2012; Lepianka, 2014) and might provide an effective pedagogical approach to improve critical thinking skills for online students. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase cognitive flexibility (Moore, & Malinowski 2009). It has been found that meditation made attention resources flexible, allowing a more powerful concentration (Slagter et al., 2007). In a study related to meditation and problem solving, the results indicated that mindful awareness improved participants’ capacity to solve problems that needed a new or original solution (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012). It has also been found that a 2-week mindfulness-training course decreased mind wandering and improved participants’ cognitive performance and the participants’ GRE reading-comprehension scores were improved by mindfulness training (Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013). Such results suggest that mindfulness may improve cognitive function.


The problem is that the effectiveness of using meditation on improving students’ critical thinking skills has not been examined yet. The literature review demonstrates that educational models are shifting to a more holistic, contemplative approach and therefore research related to meditation as a teaching tool is justified. However, the literature also reveals many issues in previous research related to meditation and the effectiveness of meditation as a teaching tool. There has been emphasis on the need for further research to determine if teaching method is a predictor of improved critical thinking skills (Drennan, 2010; Hunter, Pitt, Croce, & Roche, 2014). Currently, meditation is applied to education at the individual level by individual teachers within their own classrooms. However, as the trend toward a more contemplative approach to education continues, further empirical studies can illustrate how meditation can best contribute to this movement (Napora, 2011). The purpose of the current quantitative repeated measure quasi experimental study was to determine the relationship between meditation and critical thinking skills before and after taking a meditation course by undergraduate students at a higher education institution in the southwest of the United States.

Theoretical framework

 The combination of the Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Theory (2006) and Brown, Ryan, and Creswell (2007) Mindfulness Theory has formed the theoretical foundation of the current study. The Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Theory (2006) is based on Dewey’s (1910) concept of reflective thinking which includes a voluntary, self-motivated effort to form beliefs that are based on rational thought and evidence. Dewey considered the critical thinking process as a recursive, not linear process which could be both hindered and aided by education.  Dewey sought an educational environment that integrated a student’s experience, learning content, and reflection.  Accordingly, seven core intellectual traits of strong critical thinkers are identified by Paul and Elder:

  • Intellectual Humility – a lack of intellectual arrogance
  • Intellectual Empathy – having the ability to see things through the eyes of another
  • Intellectual Perseverance – the ability to continue applying rational thought in the midst of others whose thinking is irrational
  • Fair mindedness – understanding the need to be open to all viewpoints
  • Intellectual Courage – an ability to fairly investigate beliefs and ideas
  • Intellectual Integrity – an ability to consistently apply the same thought standards
  • Faith in reason – having the belief that individuals can learn to think critically and learn to persuade one another

In examining how mindfulness meditation might influence the development of critical thinking skills, it is helpful to examine Mindfulness Theory and its relation to other awareness theories.  Mindfulness is defined by Brown et al. (2007) as “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience” (p. 212). Mindfulness Theory describes factors of quality of consciousness and awareness.

  • Clarity of awareness – being consistently aware of one’s inner and outer worlds at any given time
  • Nondiscriminatory, non-conceptual awareness – a mindful processing that does not evaluate, think about, compare, or reflect on the experience
  • Flexible attention and awareness - in a mindfulness state, possibility to switch between focused attention to detail and looking at the larger whole
  • Stable, continuous awareness and attention – the ability to recognize both being in a mindful state and also recognizing when one is no longer in this state

Mindfulness theory supports critical thinking in that the mindful state is intrinsically empirical and defers judgment. Achieving a mindfulness state discourages habitual thinking and emotional thinking facilitating critical thinking. By sustaining a present-oriented focus, emotional reactions are reduced (Brown et al., 2007). The observant posture that exists in the mindfulness state leads to more reluctance to accept egocentric perceptions (Deikman,1996). When egocentric interpretations diminish, a more critically aware state begins to guide decision making.


The current study examined whether incorporating meditation into the curriculum can contribute to a positive improvement in critical thinking. The following question and hypotheses guided the study.

Research Question 1: Is there any statistically significant difference between online undergraduate students’ critical thinking skills before and after taking a meditation course?

H01: There is no statistically significant difference between online undergraduate students’ critical thinking skills before and after taking a meditation course.

HA1: There is a statistically significant difference between online undergraduate students’ critical thinking skills before and after taking a meditation course.

A quantitative study with a repeated measure design was used to answer the research question and examine the effect of a meditation course offered by an institution in the Southwest of the United States on students’ critical thinking skills as measured by California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST-N). The validity and reliability of the instrument has been already established. The quantitative method was appropriate because the research involved in quantifiable data of numerical scores that were analyzed using statistics. A sample size of 40 undergraduate students was included in the study. This sample size was adequate for analyzing a paired t-test for power of .80, large effect size, the significant criterion α = .05 (Cohen, 1992). Purposeful sampling method was used to recruit participants from the institution before taking the entry level meditation course.  Participants took CCTST-N before starting the course and again after passing a 4 week meditation course. The independent variable was use of the meditation for 4 weeks. Dependent variable was the participants’ critical thinking score measured by the instrument. Paired t test was used to analyze the data and compare pretest and posttest scores of the participants.  

Results and conclusion

The result of a Pair t-test indicated that there was a statistically significant differences (p < 0.05) between critical thinking skill scores of students before and after taking a meditation course.  Students’ critical thinking skills significantly improved as a result of taking the meditation course.       

Critical thinking is an essential skill for living in the changing world. With large amounts of data available without immediately-verifiable truth, students are a group who must function creatively and accurately in an ever-changing environment (Brown et al., 2007).  The current study results indicated that meditation improved critical thinking skill of students to better perform in higher education. The possibility exists for educators to use meditation to improve critical thinking that is so important for living effectively in an ever-changing world. This research has benefits that include adding to the field of knowledge about improving critical thinking through meditation, helping students and society to learn during this era of ever growing and questionable data, and impacting students both locally and internationally in various learning environments. The current results are consistent with the previous studies that indicated the mindfulness training significantly improved executive functioning and memory, as well as improving the capacity to strengthen attention (Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David, Goolkasian, 2010). Additionally, the results endorsed the relation between mindfulness and critical thinking skills as proposed by the theoretical framework of the study with combination of the Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Theory (2006) and Brown et al. (2007) Mindfulness Theory. The results inform higher education instructors and designers about how meditation can be an effective approach to be incorporated in the higher education courses to improve critical thinking skills of the students and better prepare them to succeed in 21 century job market.


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