The Impact of Mindfulness with Online Graduate Students

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The purpose of this proposed doctoral dissertation is to examine the effects of incorporating mindfulness into online graduate courses. By cultivating a mindful sense of awareness, online graduate students can learn to be more engaged with course content, and their emotional health and cognitive abilities may be improved. 


Jackie Murphy graduated from Drexel University with her MSN in Nursing Education and is a Certified Nurse Educator. She has been in nursing education since 2007, both in teaching and leadership roles. Currently, Jackie teaches online for Drexel University in both the core graduate courses and in the nursing education track. She is currently pursuing her EdD in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University and her area of research interest is mindfulness in online higher education.
Dr. Betts has 20 years of experience in higher education serving in key leadership positions within private, public, and for-profit institutions as a program director, Senior Director for e-Learning, Director of Online & Blended Learning, and Chief Academic Officer. Dr. Betts has expertise is in higher education, online and blended learning, curriculum and instructional design, strategic planning, and evaluation. Her research focus is on online and blended learning, Online Human Touch/high touch, Brain-Targeted Teaching, 21st century skills, workforce/career development, student retention, and faculty development. Dr. Betts is a Middle States peer evaluator and Quality Matters peer reviewer. She is also an instructor for the Online Learning Consortium Advanced Certificate program. Dr. Betts has also been a keynote speaker at conferences and government-supported events in Sweden, South Korea, Canada, and across the United States.

Extended Abstract

Background - A challenge in higher education is keeping students present when interacting with the course content.  In modern-day society, everyone, including students are so busy, forced to multi-task, and by doing so peoples’ attention is constantly divided (Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2011).  While students may be physically present or actively online, their mind may be elsewhere.  In 2017, a survey conducted by the American College Health Association of over 14,000 graduate students found that 59.8% experienced higher than average stress rates and one in five reported that the stress impacted their academic performance.  For online graduate students, this stress could partially stem from the fact students often must juggle a full-time job, a family, and the demands of graduate school.  Another important study found that the mind wanders almost 50% of the time while engaging in an activity (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).  Given students’ stress levels, their minds may be ruminating on other life stressors when they are engaging with course materials.

Mindfulness is a tool that could potentially help online students be more present when engaging with course content.  The research on mindfulness continues to grow, as thousands of articles have been published since Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness to the United States in 1979.  Several of the benefits that can be readily found throughout the research includes decreased levels of perceived stress (Hölzel et al., 2012; Shapiro et al., 2012), decreased mind wandering, increased levels of attention (Bennike, Wieghorst, & Kirk, 2017; Tang et al., 2007; Vago & Zeidan, 2016), and increased creativity and problem solving (Berkovich-Ohana, Glicksohn, Ben-Soussan, & Goldstein, 2016; Ostafin & Kassman, 2012). Theoretically, these proven benefits could significantly impact a student’s success by allowing them to focus more intently on the course content and be more creative with their assignments, instead of worrying about other life stressors or focusing only on achieving a certain grade.

Problem Statement - Mindfulness has been infused into many K-12 schools and has started to gain more acceptance in higher education  However, there is very little research on mindfulness in online higher education courses, including the effects on online students and the best ways to implement mindfulness practices (Shapiro et al., 2011).  Therefore, there is a need for research that focuses on the effects of mindfulness in online higher education courses.

Purpose - The purpose of this proposed dissertation study is to examine the effects of incorporating four weeks of short mindfulness meditation into online graduate courses.  Statistics show that graduate students experience high levels of stress, and this stress impacts their academic performance (American College Health Association, 2017).  More students, including graduate students, are enrolling in online programs (Seaman et al., 2018), as it is often the only way they can fit in graduate school with their other family and work obligations.  Even with the statistics related to students’ stress levels, colleges and universities tend to only focus on developing the intellectual capacity of students in a given area, as opposed to developing the entire student, including providing ways for the students to manage their stress and increase their focus.  Mindfulness is a practice that can bridge this gap to help students manage their stress and improve their focus.    

Significance - The significance of this research is that if students find being in graduate school stressful, then this stress will not change until graduation.  Research shows that increased stress levels lead to an increase in mind wandering (Smallwood & O'Connor, 2011).  An increase in mind wandering ultimately leads to decreased focus and can lead to poor academic performance (Dixon & Bortolussi, 2013; Farley, Risko, & Kingstone, 2013).  Given that it is impossible to remove the stress-inducing event (graduate school), it is imperative to give students tools to manage their stress and improve their focus.  The mindfulness studies that have been completed have demonstrated that subjective levels of perceived stress can be improved even when the objective stressor is still present (Hölzel et al., 2010). This is an important finding, considering the research shows that it is the level of perceived subjective stress that impacts a person’s health (Epel et al., 2004).

With the robust literature on mindfulness, it is known that mindfulness can be the tool to help decrease stress. What is unknown is the effects of incorporating it into online courses, so that students do not view it as just another thing to do, but a “value-added” tool.  Ultimately, given students’ levels of stress and the limited research on mindfulness in online education, this study will benefit both online graduate students and faculty.

Proposed Research Questions: The proposed research questions for this mixed methods study are:

  1. What are the effects of incorporating four weeks of short mindfulness meditations with online graduate students?
  2. How does four weeks of short mindfulness meditations influence online graduate students’ level of mindfulness, perceived stress, and mind wandering?
  3. How do levels of mindfulness and perceived stress relate to levels of mind wandering with online graduate students?

This presentation will provide an key studies from the literature. Additionally, this presentation will share the research framework for this dissertation as well as preliarny findings from internal studies conducted with higher education students. Evidenced-based practices will also be shared.

Faculty Advisor:

Dr. Kristen Betts
Drexel University