Using Mindfulness to Boost Low Confidence

Using Mindfulness to Boost Low Confidence: 
How Two LRDC Researchers Are Using Their Personalized Education Grant to Improve Achievement Gaps in Introductory Physics

Wednesday, January 8, 2020
By JON SHAIKEN

“These focus groups dispelled the myth that maybe because students have low confidence, they’re procrastinating. If anything, they’re working twice as hard because they have low confidence.”

That is Brian Galla, an LRDC researcher and applied developmental psychologist studying mindfulness training, describing the results of a survey he, along with his research partner, cognitive psychologist Tim Nokes-Malach, conducted among first-year physics students.  

Originally, Nokes-Malach and Galla had set out to conduct these interviews to gauge the stress levels among all students, and how that stress manifested itself. What they found, however, redirected the scope of their Personalized Education project, “Personalizing Undergraduate STEM Learning through Mobile Mindfulness Training.”

“In related research, led by Emily Marshman, one of our most alarming finding was that female students who had A’s had similar self-efficacy as male students who were earnings C’s.” said Nokes-Malach.

Nokes-Malach doesn’t mean that female students have lower self-esteem in their everyday lives than their male counterparts; in fact, their surveys showed that there were no differences in the students’ general beliefs about intelligence.

“There were differences on what we call physics intelligence,” said Nokes Malach. “When you frame the questions around things like physics ability or physics intelligence, there was some differences between the female students and male students.”

They hypothesize that a lack of confidence in physics performance comes from the stress of a classroom environment, stereotypes, as well as perhaps a fixed mindset about their ability to grow as a physics student.

“A lot of students that we talked to in these hour-long interviews did express a lot of stress and doubt about their ability to succeed,” said Galla. “Unfortunately, again, this was primarily female students who were endorsing these [beliefs].”

The good news? Galla and Nokes-Malach are coming up with a way to combat these feelings of low-confidence and inability to succeed using mindfulness training and techniques.

“Mindfulness is seen as just this non-judgmental, present moment attention,” said Galla. “But what’s left out [of this definition] is the understanding for why that would be useful or why you would want to spend time cultivating that perspective.”

Nokes-Malach addressed how we can use mindfulness as a tool. “There are likely cognitive and emotional skills that allow one to keep [a state of mindfulness] or to regulate that state,” he said.

The partners are currently working with a renowned mindfulness teacher to record a set of trainings tailored to female students in introductory physics. The goal is to eventually develop a program that can be tailored to any student in any other STEM course, and beyond that any type of college course or experience. The training will try to focus on specific stress points during the typical college course, so that students are being trained to be aware of their internal reactions to this stress throughout the semester.

“We’re trying to fill a gap in the mindfulness literature,” Galla said. “Which is that most of the time people enter a mindfulness course and its just stress reduction. I think what we were feeling was that there's not necessarily a good reason to think that a course on general stress reduction is going to transfer to the very specific challenges that students in physics are telling us that they're facing.”

Their hope is that the students who participate in the training with them will not only be able to apply it to other physics contexts they might find themselves in, but develop techniques over time that will allow them to feel more confident in those contexts.

“It’s a huge leap to just meditate in the morning, for example, and then go to physics and be like, ‘Oh, you know what? This is exactly the kind of situation [I am equipped to be in],” Galla said. “It takes a long time to build up enough skill and enough wherewithal to know that there are other contexts I can do this practice in.”

The training is being piloted this semester in those introductory physics courses, drawing from previous practices on mindfulness and creating techniques specific to the physics classroom. “We built on prior work around an acronym called RAIN; recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identify,” Nokes-Malach said. “We’re pretty excited about it.”

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To learn more about the Personalized Education grants, visit personalized.pitt.edu/projects.