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Meditating before class: ‘Students sometimes say: I forgot I had a body’

In this new ‘Educatips’ column, Psychology lecturers share their most important insights about teaching. This month: Elise Seip wants to help students get out of their head and into their body. That is why she starts every work group with mindfulness.

Elise Seip is coordinator of the master’s in Economic and Consumer Psychology and the subjects she teaches include Emotions and (Ir)rationality in Economic Behaviour. As well as her work at the University, she also has her own practice as a haptotherapist.

‘Feel how your body is in contact with the chair, and how your feet are firmly planted on the floor.’ With her eyes closed, sitting on a table in a rather stuffy basement room,  Elise Seip guides thirteen students through a body scan. She stresses at the start of the lesson that anyone who doesn’t want to take part doesn’t have to. ‘Just looking around you or staring out of the window is also OK.’ But everyone’s eyes are closed, and for ten minutes the room is silent. Why does Seip start her lessons this way? And what further characterizes her approach to education?

Lesson 1: Don’t forget to feel

‘After a meditation, a lot of students say: “I was never aware of what I felt in my stomach, or my chest. Actually, I had forgotten that I had a body.” If you aren’t aware of your body, you can’t take good care of yourself and regulate your emotions. You don’t really have any idea how you’re doing.

Students demand a lot of themselves, and they also feel pressure from society. At university, the emphasis is on cognitive performance, which means you live in your head a lot of the time. Yes, a little stress is good, but if you’re constantly under pressure and your breathing is always high in your chest, there’ll come a time when you aren’t sleeping well. Not only that, you’ll  turn to all kinds of coping mechanisms to try to manage the stress: drinking a lot, only meeting people, buying things, putting things off.

‘Our body is giving us signals all the time about how we are doing, whether what we are doing is good for us or not. Mindfulness teaches students to listen better to their bodies. I often get feedback from them that they feel calmer and more focused, and - most important of all – that their interactions with the people around them are much better. Can I integrate this further into teaching, maybe  by training other lecturers in mindfulness? That’s something I’m thinking about.’   

‘Mindfulness teaches students to listen better to the signals from their body’

Lesson 2: Pay more attention to the individual student

‘As lecturers, it’s our job to convey knowledge and theory. But together with colleagues I want to pay more attention to students as people. For example, we’re working towards students setting their own learning objectives. At the start of a course they decide where they want to focus their development, based on a questionnaire they fill in. This could be something like learning how to have better discussions, or improving their writing skills. That demands a lot more self-reflection from students. They have to ask themselves: What do I want to get out of this course? That’s different from: What does the lecturer want me to do so that I can get a good grade?

‘Lecturers then have to pay attention to what is happening in a group. If someone is very quiet, how do you involve them? How do you make sure they dare to speak up in discussions? Every student brings their own unique perspective and background with them, and their own interests and passions. I try to bring out that authentic student in the class.’ 

Lesson 3: Put students themselves in charge of the work group (and dare to let go of grades)

The Emotions and (Ir)rationality in Economic Behaviour course is about the psychology of consumer behaviour. Why do consumers choose particular products? And what influence do emotions have on the effectiveness of a campaign, for example?

‘In the work group, the idea is that students themselves  work with the material, rather than just being expected to reproduce the theories that the lecturer puts forward. Every week two students are tasked with deciding how best to organise a work group for their fellow students.  They can get the group to design a campaign based on the literature, or they can initiate a discussion within the group. The idea is that we train students to become academic professionals. Later in the professional field they will also have to produce arguments, communicate their views, actively share knowledge and convince others. These are the skills they are practising now.   

‘At first we gave them a grade for organising the lecture, but we realised that that was too stressful and students took on the role of teacher - working hard, taking control of the work group, quickly filling in any silences, while the idea is that there are some parts that they don’t prepare, but trust that knowledge will also come from the group. Now we’ve replaced the grades with a Pass or Fail, students dare to take more risks and trust in the input from the group.’   

Share your educa-tip?

Are you a lecturer at the Institute of Psychology and do you want to tell colleagues about how you teach? Or would you like to nominate an inspiring colleague for the next column? You can send a mail to news.psy@fsw.leidenuniv.nl putting ‘Educatip’ in the subject field.

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