Mindfulness in Higher Education: Awareness and Attention
in University Students Increase During and After Participation
in a Mindfulness Curriculum Course
Esther I. de Bruin & Renée Meppelink & Susan M. Bögels
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Abstract This study assessed the effects of a mindfulness
course in the curriculum of international students (n=104)
from 16 different countries at the University of Amsterdam.
The curriculum consisted of seven weekly lectures, as well as
studying scientific articles on mindfulness research and
gaining some experiential learning in meditating. The primary
goal of this course was not to become more mindful, but to
learn about the origins and the applications of mindfulness in
(child) psychiatry. Students filled in the Five Facet
Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) at “wait-list,” pre-course,
post-course, and at 7 weeks follow-up. Multilevel analyses
showed that mindful awareness decreased during wait-list (d=
−0.11), increased from pre-course to post-course (d=0.36),
and even more so from pre-course to follow-up (d=0.53).
Differential effects for students from within and outside the
Netherlands are discussed as well as for “meditator” versus
“novic e” students. Int erna tional s tudents and meditators
showed an increase in mindfulness already during the course,
whereas Dutch students and novices only reported an increase
in mindfulness at follow-up. Overall, participation in a low-
intensity mindfulness course in a university’scurriculumleads
to an increased non-judgmental and non-reactive stance to-
wards student’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, during the
course period, and their mindfulness increased even further
after the course period. This increased mindfulness may help
them in coping with stress given the pressure they are under
and may improve their performance and their quality of life.
University students show a very high rate of stress, anxiety,
and depression. For instance, at the University of Michigan,
the estimated prevalence of a depressive or anxiety disorder
was 15.6 % for undergraduates and 13 % for graduate students
(Eisenberg, Gollust, Golberstein, and Hefner 2007). To com-
pare, major depressive disorder has a 12-month prevalence of
6.7 % in the US general adult population (Kessler, Chiu,
Demler, and Walters 2005). According to a national survey
by the American College Health Association, 10 % of the
students reported to “seriously consider attempting suicide.” It
is clear that (university) students face a high stress load which
creates a need for time-out moments, for calm, for relaxation,
and for present-moment awareness in their hectic lives.
Mindfulness could be a helping aid for surviving in this frantic
world of a twenty-first century student. This study assessed
the effects of a mindfulness curriculum course on the mindful
awareness and attention of university students.
Despite the plethora of studies into the effects of mindful-
ness training in clinical and non-clinical populations, only a
few studies of mindfulness in higher education are available.
Collard, Avny, and Boniwell (2009)includedan8-weekex-
periential mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
course in the curriculum of psychotherapy students (n=15)
of the University of East London. A pre-post test design
showed a significant increase in mindfulness after the course.
Further, the 8-week Mindf ulness-Based Coping with
University Life (MBCUL) was developed for stressed stu-
dents at the University of Northampton and a pilot study
E. I. de Bruin (*)
S. M. Bögels
Research Institute of Child Development and Education (RICDE),
Research Priority Area Yield, University of Amsterdam, Nieuwe
Achtergracht 127, 1018 WS Amsterdam, The Netherlands
showed lowered stress, anxiety, and depression as well as an
increase in mindfulness in students that took part in this course
(n=10) as compared to those who were on the wait-list (n=6)
(Lynch, Gander, Kohls, Kudielka, and Walach 2011). A recent
RCT in a sample of stressed university students and young
adults (n=76) showed that 6 weeks of daily meditations, daily
physical exercises, or daily biofeedback were equally effective
in the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression and in the
improvement of psychological well-being and sleep quality
(Van der Zwan, de Vente, Huizink, Bögels, and de Bruin
Apart from these mindfulness-related interventions for
(stressed) students, we are aware of a few universities where
the study and practice of mindfulness is actually integrated in
the curriculum. At the University of Oxford, UK, a 2 year
master’s degree is offered in MBCT. In line, at the Lesley
University of Massachusetts, USA, a 2 year master of arts in
mindfulness studies is offered. And at the University of
Sapienza, Rome, Italy, a 1-year curriculum that fully focuses
on different aspects of mindfulness is available. These three
examples are high-intensity courses. In the current study, we
assessed the effects of a low-intensity 7-week mindfulness
curriculum course (in which students mainly attended lectures
about mindfulness, not an experiential course such as
mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or MBCT) for
international university students on their level of mindful
awareness and attention.
Bachelor students from the University of Amsterdam were the
participants in this study (n=104,n=92 females). Average age
of the students was 22.5 years (SD=2.8). Since the mindful-
ness course was an international course in the curriculum,
students from 16 different countries participated: Bulgaria,
n =1; China, n =2; Costa Rica, n =2; Curacao, n =2;
Denmark, n=2; Germany, n=3, Great Britain, n=1; Greece,
n=1; Hungary, n=1; Iceland, n=1; Italy, n=2; Norway, n=1;
South-Africa, n=3; the Netherlands, n=66; Turkey, and n=1;
USA, n=15. Overall, 63.5 % of the students were of Dutch
Six weeks before the course started, a “wait-list” (T0) mea-
surement took place, 1 week before start of the mindfulness
course pre-course assessment (T1) took place, immediately
after the 7-week course post-course test (T2), and follow-up
measurement (T3) took place 6 weeks after post-cours e.
Students were blind with respect to the number of
measurements that were coming, and they were not aware of
the purpose of filling in the questionnaire. During their course,
they also learned about mindfulness measurements and filling
out the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) was
presented as being part of the curriculum to learn about
mindfulness measurements and questionnaires. Students gave
consent to participate, and the Ethics Committee of the
University of Amsterdam approved the study.
The mindfulness course was a third-year elective bachelor
course of 6 ECTS. The course consisted of seven weekly 2-h
lectures by qualified and highly experienced mindfulness
trainers and researchers. Lectures were accompanied by video
lectures of Mark Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, and students
watched two mindfulness documentaries (Be Still and the
Dhamma Brothers). In addition, they studied 13 scientific
articles about mindfulness as well as the book by Segal,
Williams, and T easdale (2013). According to the study man-
ual, the goals of this part of the curriculum for students were as
follows: (1) to acquire knowledge about the historical per-
spective and development of mindfulness-based interven-
tions, (2) to learn about the most common MBSR and
MBCT trainings, (3) to become familiar with mindfulness
interventions in child psychiatry, (4) to learn about the relation
between mindfulness-based interventions and more classical-
ly known forms of psychotherapy, and (5) to practice a little
with different forms of meditation themselves.
The following topics were part of the mindfulness course:
history of MBSR and MBCT, differences between mindful-
ness training and cognitive behavior training (CBT), mindful-
ness and depression (i.e., Hofmann et al. 2010; Segal et al.
2013), mindful parenting (i.e., Bögels, Lehtonen, and Restifo
2010), mindfulness in pregnancy and childbirth (i.e., Duncan
and Bardacke 2010), mindfulness for children and teenagers
with ADHD (i.e., Van der Oord, Bögels, and Peijnenburg
2012), mindfulness for children and teenagers with autism
(i.e., Singh, Lancion i, Singh, Winton, Singh, and Singh
2011), and mindfulness interventions at schools (i.e., van de
Weijer-Bergsma, Langenberg, Brandsma, Oort, and Bögels
2012). Each of these main themes was studied from three
perspectives: a clinical perspective, actual training protocols
and patient groups were discussed and viewed in different
videos; a resear ch perspec tive, scienti fic studie s were
discussed; and an experiential perspective, during the lectures,
several meditations were practiced with the students, for in-
stance the raisin meditation, the breath meditation, the 3-min
breathing space, the body scan, and the thoughts meditation.
Further, they were given meditation ex ercises during the
course to practice them at home. For instance, they practiced
the .b exercise. That is, subgroups of two students exchanged
mobile phone numbers for this exercise. Once a day, each of
the two students would send the other, at a random moment, a
so-called .b message by W hatsApp (Kuyken, Weare,
Ukoumunne, Vicary, Motton, Burnett, et al. 2013). At the
moment of either sending or receiving a .b, they would need to
stop whatever they were doing and take a 3-min breathing
space (.b=stop and breathe). Students’ final grade for the
course was based on multiple-choice questions (i.e., “MBCT
was originally developed in order to prevent relapse of: A.
Alcohol and substance abuse; B. Major depressive episodes;
C. Generalized anxiety episodes” or “Full Catastrophe Living
is a famous book in the literature around mindfulness by Jon
Kabat-Zinn. With your current knowledge of mindfulness,
what is the most likely meaning of this title? To learn: A.
How to have less catastrophes happening in your life; B. How
to accept and embrace catastrophes in your life; C. Not to
worry so much about catastrophes in your life”) and open-
ended essay style questions (i.e., “With respect to your own
practice of the meditations during this course, either at home
or during the lectures, please describe your experiences, re-
flections and discoveries in a maximum of 200 words”).
The FFMQ is a 39-item self-reported questionnaire that con-
sists of five facets of mindfulness: observing, describing,
acting with awareness, non-judging, and non-reactivity
(Baer, Smith, Hopk ins, Kriete meyer, and Toney 20 06).
Items are scored on a 5-point scale where 1=never or very
rarely true and 5=very often or always true. Observing reflects
the tendency to notice or attend to internal and external expe-
riences (i.e., “When I take a shower or bath, I stay alert to the
sensations of water on my body”). Describing reflects the
tendency to describe and label these experiences with words
(i.e., “I’m good at finding the words to describe my feelings”).
Acting with awareness refers to directing undivided attention
to one’s current activity (i.e., “I rush through activities without
being really attentive to them”). Non-judging reflects a non-
evaluative attitude towards inner experiences (i.e., “Ithink
some of my emotions are bad or inappropriate and I shouldn’t
feel them”). Non-reactivity is the tendency to allow thoughts
and feelings to come and go, without getting caught up in
them or react instantly to them (i.e., “Iperceivemyfeelings
and emotions withou t having to react to them”). Internal
consistency of the FFMQ varies between .75 and .90 for the
Dutch population (de Bruin, Topper, Muskens, Bögels, and
Kamphuis 2012). In the current sample, internal consistencies
were the following: T0: α =0.78, T1: α =0.87, T2: α =0.80,
and T3: α=0.90.
The effectiveness of the mindfulness university course on
students’ own level of mindful awareness and attention was
examined by multilevel analyses because these analyses
account for dependencies in nested data. In this study, mea-
surements were nested in respondents (i.e., students reported
four times about the same behaviors, namely at wait-list, pre-
course, post-course, and follow-up course measurement).
Depen dent variables w ere the outcome measures (FFMQ
subscales) while time was entered as predictor. Standardized
scores of the FFMQ were used (with a mean of 0 and standard
deviation of 1). This way, the parameter estimates can be
interpreted as a measure of effect (Cohen’s d). An effect size
of 0.3 was considered small, of 0.5 medium, and an effect size
of 0.8 was considered large (Cohen 1988). Because significant
effects of time (p<0.05) were found on the total FFMQ score,
additional analyses were conducted on the five subscales.
Attendance rate of students at the seven lectures was high,
considering being present was not compulsory. Around 10 %
of the students attended a maximum of three lectures; the other
90 % attended four or more of the lectures, with over 30 %
attending six to seven lectures.
Students rated their level of affinity with mindfulness in
general on a 1–10-point scale. This affinity showed a border-
line significant increase during wait-list period (from T0 to T1,
parameter estimate=0.13) and a significant increase after the
mindfulness course (from T1 to T2, parameter estimate=
Students also reported on the extent to which they practiced
the meditation exercises at home. Between T1 and T2, course-
related meditations (e.g., breathing space, sitting meditation,
.b exercise) were practiced with the following frequencies: not
at all (8.9 %), less than once a week (29.1 %), about once or
twice a week (43 %), about three to five times a week
(16.5 %), and daily (2.5 %). One of the students from China
reported that even though she did not pass the exam, she felt it
was a life-changing course for her. She had no prior experi-
ence with meditation, but since the course, she felt she was
able to observe her emotions more and learned to accept them
in a calmer way (cited with student’s permission).
In Table 1, the means and standard deviations on the
FFMQ subscales and total score are presented for the different
measurement occasions. Subsequently, in Table 2,itcanbe
seen that a significant effect was found at pre-course assess-
ment for FFMQ total score indicating that during the wait-list
period (from T0 to T1), self-rated mindful awareness had
significantly decreased with a parameter estimate (interpret-
able as Cohen’s d)of−0.11. From pre-course to post-course
meas urement (T1 to T2), total FFMQ score significantly
increased (parameter estimate=0.36). Students rated them-
selves as being more mindful after the course. This effect
lasted into follow-up. From pre-course to follow-up
assessment (T1 to T3), total FFMQ score significantly in-
creased (parameter estimate=0.53). When post-course assess-
ment was compared to follow-up (T2 to T3), it was found that
effects increased even further after the mindfulness course
(parameter estimate=0.17). For FFMQ subscale effects, see
further Table 2.
To further disentangle the findings, the factors “nationality”
and “meditator” were added to the model as fixed effects.
Furthermore, the unstandardized total score of the FFMQ was
analyzed to improve interpretability. When students from the
Netherlands (n=66) were compared with those from other
countries (n=38), it was found that there was no main effect
of the course for nationality, indicating that overall Dutch and
inte rnational studen ts had similar results on self-reported
mindfulness. However, looking at the post hoc pairwise com-
parisons, adjusted for multiple testing by the Bonferroni pro-
cedure (Aickin and Gensler 1996), differences between Dutch
and international students were found. Both for Dutch and
international students, no change occurred during wait-list in
FFMQ total score. In Dutch students, mindfulness increased
significantly from pre-course to follow-up (mean difference=
0.18) and mindfulness increased with marginal significance
from post-course to follow-up (mean difference=0.10). From
pre-course to post-course, however, no change was found in
Dutch students. Subsequently, for the international students,
mindfulness significantly increased from pre-course to post-
course and from pre-course to follow-up (respectively, mean
difference=0.22 and 0.24). From post-course to follow-up,
mindfulness did not further increase in international students.
In sum, the beneficial effects of the course already became
visible for the international students during the course and
were maintained after the course, whereas Dutch students
mostly benefited from the lectures and mindfulness practices
after the course ended. A graphical display of these results can
be found in Fig. 1.
When students were dichotomized into meditators (n=61)
and novices (n=42), no main effect of the course for medita-
tors and novices occurred, indicating that overall meditators
did not differ from novices in their self-reported mindfulness
scores. However, looking at the post hoc pairwise compari-
sons, differences during the course between meditators and
novices were present. During the wait-list period, total FFMQ
scores did not change for both meditators and novices. The
novices reported a significant increase in total FFMQ from
pre-course to follow-up (mean difference=0.20), but not from
pre-course to post-course, nor from post-course to follow-up.
The meditators reported a significant increase in FFMQ total
score from pre-course to post-course and from pre-course to
follow-up (respectively, mean difference=0.21 and 0.23). The
effect remained stable from post-course to follow-up.
Therefore, results indicate that the meditators already benefit-
ed to the utmost from the lectures and mindfulness practice
during the course, while for the novices, becoming more
mindful seemed to be a more gradual process, during and after
the course. A graphical display of these results can be found in
Fig. 2. Important to note, however, is that meditators in this
study were defined as students who meditated in the past (n=
27) or were currently meditating on a daily (n=5), weekly (n=
11), monthly (n=5), or less than monthly (n=10) basis, or
Table 1 Means and standard deviations on the FFMQ at wait-list (T0), pre-course (T1), post-course (T2), and follow-up assessment (T3)
Wait-list Pre-course Post-course Follow-up
M SD M SD M SD M SD
FFMQ total 3.17 0.37 3.13 0.38 3.28 0.42 3.38 0.39
Observing 3.38 0.62 3.34 0.61 3.44 0.66 3.39 0.71
Describing 3.45 0.62 3.37 0.64 3.59 0.62 3.59 0.58
Act. awareness 3.04 0.65 2.95 0.70 2.97 0.63 3.14 0.61
Non-judging 3.12 0.79 3.10 0.84 3.39 0.88 3.62 0.89
Non-reactivity 2.83 0.51 2.86 0.52 2.99 0.51 3.11 0.51
The FFMQ was filled out by 90 % of the students at wait-list, by 89 % at pre-course, by 75 % at post-course, and by 49 % at follow-up assessment
Table 2 Parameter estimates of multilevel analyses evaluating the effects
of a mindfulness course for (international) students on their level of
mindful awareness (FFMQ)
wl-pre pre-post pre-fu post-fu
FFMQ total −0.11* 0.36*** 0.53*** 0.17*
Observing −0.09 0.13 0.07 −0.06
0.32*** 0.29** −0.03
Acting with awareness −0.12 −0.00 0.16 0.16
Non-judging −0.04 0.35*** 0.56*** 0.21
Non-reactivity 0.04 0.22* 0.43*** 0.21*
Parameter estimates can be interpreted as Cohen’s d effect sizes, since
results were standardized into Z-scores
Fu follow-up (T3), post post-course (T2), pre pre-course (T2), wl wait-list
#p<0.10; *p<0.05; **p<0.01; ***p<0.001
those who classified themselves as “other” (n=3). Novices
were those who had never meditated in their lives. One person
preferred not to answer this question and was, therefore, not
included in these analyses.
Meditators and international students seem to develop the
same during the course, as do novices and Dutch students,
who also seem to develop similarly. However, no interaction
effect was found between nationality and being a meditator or
a novice. This indicates that meditators are not necessarily
international students and novices are not necessarily Dutch
This was the first study in which the effects of a low-intensity
7-week mindfulness course in the curriculum of undergradu-
ate international students were assessed. In the group as a
whole, it was found that although overall mindfulness de-
creased in the weeks before the course started, level of mindful
awareness increased during the curriculum course and
increased even further after the course. More specifically,
improvement was mainly seen in being less judgmental and
less reactive towards thoughts, feelings, and emotions of
others and particularly of oneself.
Taking into account the factors nationality (Dutch or inter-
national) and meditator (meditatorornovice),amorefine-tuned
picture became apparent. Dutch students seemed to be the
“slow bloomers” whoshowednoeffectontheirmindfulaware-
ness during the course; however , after the course was closed,
positive effects on mindful awareness became apparent 6 weeks
later. Whereas for the international students, the effect took
place right away during the course and remained stable until
6 weeks after the course. So although in the long run both
groups increased their mindfulness, the Dutch students seem to
take somewhat longer. This might be related to the higher
internal motivation of the foreign students. This mindfulness
course was elective; it was not a compulsory part of the curric-
ulum. Whereas for Dutch students this choice might have been
partly driven by simply obtaining a few more credit points,
some foreign students specifically came from abroad to the
University of Amsterdam to attend this course driven by their
specific interest (and obtaining the study credit points might not
have been their prior motivation). As far as we are aware, other
European universities do not offer a low-intensity course on
mindfulness as part of their curriculum this way, apart from the
tree examples as mentioned in the “In troduction” section of 1–
2 year master’s degrees but they have a different focus.
In addition, just like the Dutch students seemed to be the
“late bloomers,” so were the “novices.” Whereas the meditators
showed an instant increase in their mindful awareness after the
course, for the novices, students who had never meditated in
their lives, no short-term effects were found. However, 6 weeks
after the course had ended, they found themselves being less
judgmental and reactive, more aware and awake, and better
able to observe and describe sensations within and outside
themselves. In other words, they were more mindful in their
daily lives. A delayed effect seemed to have taken place. For
students who had (at least minimal) experience with meditating
(the meditators in this study), the effects were substantial,
during and after the course. An explanation for this faster effect
of the course on (at least minimal) meditators’ mindfulness is
that some seeds of mindfulness had already been planted in the
past, and they had already practiced some meditation before,
which allowed them to pick up the psycho-education about
mindfulness and the invitation to practice faster. In contrast,
the novices may have needed a “warm-up” period to learn and
feel comfortable with a new field to them, and therefore, the
effects only became apparent at a later stage .
Overall, the increased mindful awareness is an interesting
finding considering that these students only attended relatively
brief lectures in which the goals simply were to get acquainted
with the origins and applications of mindfulness in (child)
psychiatry and to experience some meditation for oneself.
Fig. 1 Self-reported mindfulness scores (FFMQ) of Dutch students
versus international students. T0=wait-list, T1=pre-course, T2=post-
course, T3=follow-up. The mindfulness course took place between T1
Fig. 2 Self-reported mindfulness scores (FFMQ) of meditators versus
novices. T0=wait-list, T1 =pre-course, T2=post-course, T3=follow-up.
The mindfulness course took place between T1 and T2
Mindfulness scores have been shown to increase in students
after a mindfulness training before (Collard et al. 2009; Lynch
et al. 2011), but the “intervention” in this study by no means
compares to a standard MBSR- or MBCT-related course in
which for instance daily 30–45-min practice is very common.
Also remarkable was the actual decline in mindful awareness
before the course started (although this was not visible when
the two factors were included). This might be due to that in the
six pre-course weeks, students were still occupied with (the
stress of) exams from other courses. Alternatively, it might be
that students have answered the questions about how mindful
they are too positive, and if they think about it a second time,
they may become more mindful about their lack of
Limitations in this study were the inclusion of only one
outcome variable and the high drop-out at follow-up. It is
known that mindfulness is a predictor of psychological well-
being (Baer, Lykins, and Peters 2012; Lykins and Baer 2009)
and that an increase in mindfulness is related to improved
well-being and quality of life and lowered stress experience
(e.g., Brown and Ryan 2003), constructs that were not mea-
sured in this study. Further, at follow-up assessment 6 weeks
after the course, only about half of the students filled out the
questionnaire. It is possible that these were mainly the highly
motivated students, which might, as a result, present an overly
positive picture. However, multilevel analyses showed there
was no main effect for filling out the follow-up measurement.
Students who did complete T3 did not differ from those who
did not. Further, there were no significant correlations be-
tween whether the follow-up assessment was filled out and
the extent of meditation experience (meditator or novice) or
the nationality of the student.
In future research on the effects of mindfulness courses on
students’ own mindful awareness, the influence of increased
mindfulness on personal well-being, study stress, and study
performance could be assessed. If such effects are found, it
could be considered to give “low-dose” mindfulness training
to university students, already at the beginning of their study,
so that the benefits of increased mindfulness can be used
throughout the study.
Acknowledgments We would like to thank all the students of the
University of Amsterdam that took part in this course, the management
for including this course in the curriculum, and Irena Veringa, Rachel van
der Meulen, and George Langenberg for giving wonderful guest lectures.
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