To Get Students to Focus, Some Professors Are Asking Them to Close Their Eyes
By Andrew Reiner
The Washington Post
On a rainy February afternoon, the ionic charge is palpable in Michelle Francl’s physical chemistry class at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. As Francl scribbles a mathematical equation for wave function that’s projected on an overhead screen, students twirl ponytails, peck at keyboards and peek at their smartphones. They are quiet, yet there’s an undercurrent of anxiety.
Francl is nudging students toward understanding the Bohr correspondence principle, a cornerstone concept in quantum mechanics that’s as easily discernible as Mona Lisa’s smile. Bohr’s principle illustrates how classical mechanics (which predict how objects viewed with the naked eye will move) and quantum mechanics (which predict how microscopic objects will move) yield the same mathematical answer when the objects are large enough to observe. Francl has students work together to calculate a quantum mechanics probability on their laptops and projects their findings as a line graph. Then she asks students to do something odd: “We’re going to take a minute and a half and just look at it.”
Students look perplexed or exchange smirks that speak to the unorthodoxy of the request, especially for a science course.
Devices invite distraction, but they are also essential in Francl’s class. Some ESL students need smartphones for translation, and all the students need laptops to do the math. But she uses other methods to get them to focus.
“Go ahead,” Francl repeats. “Just look for 90 seconds.”
Complete quiet. Stillness. The ionic charge has fizzled – or has it?
After a minute or so, Francl pulls the image off the screen. “Take 30 remaining seconds, and make a sketch of what you think might be important” about the findings, she says. Once they stop drawing, she projects a different chart, this time a line graph created using classical mechanics, whose trajectory resembles the previous one. She asks, “Did you notice anything different that you didn’t notice before?”
A student wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt blurts out: “It looked like there were two curves.” She holds up her hands like two flat, parallel planes, flying past each other.
“You’re discovering the Bohr correspondence principle – for yourself,” Francl says as she adjusts her round, 1920s-style eyeglasses. “Your close, careful attention paid off. Now you’re thinking like scientists.” For the first time that class, heads nod throughout the room.
What just happened here? How did a classroom of students go from being fidgety and doubt-filled one minute to beaming, nascent scientists the next?
The answer is beholding – a deceptively effective technique where students stop multitasking and silently focus on a graph (or a text or a painting). A growing body of research is showing that the states of being we fear in the 21st century – decelerating, absorbing less information, quietly, no less – are what this generation of overwhelmed, hyper-stimulated, often-depressed college students need to succeed.
Everything about this approach to learning runs counter to the sensibilities and lifestyles of these young “digital natives”: flexibility at the expense of commitment; “Shark Tank”-worthy rÃ©sumÃ©s and social media brands; around-the-clock connectivity fueled by energy drinks. Is it any wonder that a University of Virginia-led study (11 studies, actually) discovered that participants would rather face electric shock than sit quietly alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes? Is it really surprising that we encourage children to constantly juggle as much as they can, though research shows that the resting (not restless) brain sorts through and saves recently acquired information and deepens cognitive connections? Let’s face it: As a cultural ethos we’re suspicious, at best, of stillness and silence.
Yet professors at both community colleges and elite universities are rallying around the virtues of stillness and silence as essential to learning.
In a 2014 speech, Harvard University President Drew Faust told a group of Texas high school students “the ability to examine a piece of information skeptically, before deciding whether to accept it or not, is a vital skill in the workplace, and a vital skill in life.
“â€‰’Think Slow’ may never become a slogan, like Steve Jobs’s ‘Think Different,’â€‰” she said. “But it strikes me as an attractive claim.”
Her colleague, Jennifer L. Roberts, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz professor of the humanities, has put “Think Slow” into practice.
She assigns graduate and undergraduate art history students an intensive research paper and requires them, before they start, to spend at least three consecutive hours gazing at one work of art.
This deceivingly simplistic assignment shows students that “just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it,” Roberts said, according to an essay in Harvard’s alumni magazine in 2013. “Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness … What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.”
Critics of this sort of curricular brake-tapping argue that, even if such approaches work for humanities courses, they could never translate effectively to mathematics or the hard sciences. The same critics rolled their eyes at Barbara McClintock when she was asked, near the end of her life, how she made “great science.” The Nobel Prize-winning cytogeneticist, whose research centered on corn, responded, “Really, all I can tell you about doing great science is that you somehow have to learn to lean into the kernel.”
But Francl insists that the disciplined, muted immersion McClintock referred to is essential to success in science. She says she made this connection 10 years ago during daily Mass at a nearby friary.
Every day after Mass she joined the monks for lauds, chanting in two lines facing each other, a liturgical call and response. “It taught a willingness to wait,” she says.
This has helped her with her research. “Sometimes I’ll spend six months looking at a molecule,” she says. And it has made her more “deliberate” and “effective” in the classroom.
Inspired by the monks’ values and spartan lifestyle, Francl decided to “stop stuffing stuff into my classes for the sake of volume.”
“If I’m dumping so many equations on the board,” she says, “and students aren’t understanding any of them, what [is] the point?”
Francl’s techniques are examples of what’s called “mindful-based” or “contemplative” education. It takes many forms, such as meditative breathing, visualization, beholding and lectio divina(divine reading). It gets students to slow their bodies and brains as they become more aware of their thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings and immediate environment. One of the outcomes is that practitioners can learn to accept, without judgment, the thoughts and feelings that surface.
A 2008 report, “Toward the Integration of Meditation Into Higher Education: A Review of Research,” cites a 1998 study conducted over two semesters on 56 undergraduates split into two study groups, one of which practiced “concentration-based meditation.” At the end of the study, those students “had significantly higher GPA scores compared to the control group.” A 2012 randomized controlled study on 48 undergraduates, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that students who undertook a two-week mindfulness-training course achieved improvements in GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity, along with reductions in distracting thoughts.
Joanne Bagshaw, associate professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Germantown, has seen similar results. She attributes them in part to teaching her students to manage stress, which, experts say, is exacerbated by our chronically overstimulated, technologically overloaded circuits. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin observes that multitasking exacts a toll on the brain by boosting production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.
Bagshaw says, on top of that, many community college students face additional stressors such as caring for children, working two or three jobs, or helping to support extended family members.
“I’ve learned that it’s important to give them a space where they can relax, learn to breathe in silence, be present. When they’re more present, they’re more open to learning,” she says.
Bagshaw has students put pens and laptop screens down and listen to the lecture or spend a few moments quietly reflecting on the topic.
Kenya Sesay, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Maryland who transferred from Montgomery College, says: “Most of the time you don’t review notes later because you’re so busy, so any connections you might have made during class are gone. But the silence [in Bagshaw’s class] made everything more understandable – it encouraged us to ask questions right then and there that many of us never asked otherwise.”
At the end of classes, Bagshaw turns off lights and asks for a moment of silence. She instructs her students to breathe meditatively (inhale, hold, exhale) and to focus on feelings and the causes of their hurt and stress. Then she tells them to let go of this negativity.
Sesay, who hopes to pursue graduate studies in either counseling or forensic psychology, says the exercise helps her because she is “always stressed.”
“All I can think about is how much I’m going to fail. How I’m not succeeding for what my parents sent me here to do,” she says. “Having that 10 minutes of peace gives a student a whole new feeling for the rest of day that, yes, I can get this done.”
Andrew Reiner is a regular contributor to the Magazine and teaches at Towson University. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.
This article was written by Andrew Reiner from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.