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Conscious Learners: Can Mindfulness Build Integrity in the Classroom?

Radford University's Honor Pledge requires students to hold themselves and others “to the highest moral and ethical standards of academic integrity and good citizenship”[1]. Studies have shown that cheating behavior is commonplace in colleges and schools. During one academic year, the author detected cheating, plagiarism, and falsification of attendance record in his classes. These cases threaten to derail the academic careers of the students involved and they can adversely affect the atmosphere for learning in the classroom following their discovery and exposure.

An emerging body of research have suggested that contemplative practices can improve attention and concentration, heighten ability to deal with difficult tasks, reduce anxiety, promote effective decision-making, and strengthen self-reflection and self-care (Thompson, 2001; Goleman, 2006; Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007, Lutz et al., 2009; Jacobs et al., 2011; Holzel et al., 2011; Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2014). Practices such as contemplation, introspection, and reflection in classroom practices and pedagogy have been shown to help students attend to their own emotions and mindsets regarding learning, improve their comprehension and retention, and create opportunities for learning and insight (Roberts-Wolfe, Saachet, & Britton, 2009; Birnie, Speca, & Carlson, 2010; and MacLean et al., 2010). All these contemplative practices contribute positively to learning outcomes by creating the intra-personal and external pre-conditions that enable productive and often difficult effort and behaviors associated with learning in today’s colleges and schools.

While studies have shown that these practices can influence the competence of learners, what can they do to shape the character of students? Can mindfulness help prevent misconduct and breaches of the honor code? Beyond affecting the cognitive and affective landscapes in the minds of learners, will contemplative practices be able to influence the actions, behaviors, and habits in the classroom? Will contemplation, introspection, and reflection help reduce procrastination and impulsivity – two major causes of student malpractice? Just as learning analytics and the science of teaching can improve instructional strategies and learning outcomes, how can the emerging theories and empirical data on contemplative practices help prevent integrity lapses and violations of the honor code among students, both within and out of the classroom?

Since October 2015 in the Fall Semester, the author has been conducting a study, sponsored by Radford University's Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and Department of Political Science, to answer some of these questions. This is a year-long research that is expected to end in June 2016. He has conducted 17 closed-door private interviews with individual students, 5 meetings with faculty members and administers, and held 2 focus groups with classes of 30-40 students on this subject. Using preliminary data from this inquiry, he has drawn implications on teaching and testing strategies that prevent malpractice and build integrity in the contexts of applying mindfulness and other contemplative practices. Here are some hypotheses and conclusions from his preliminary findings.

Findings from the Inquiry

According to my interviews, focus-group discussions, and research, the causes of integrity failure and violations of the honor code by students are at least as varied as the circumstances and personalities of the people involved. Eight main ‘causes’ are most prominently featured in the research process:

  1. Last-minute work – procrastination
  2. Short cuts to grades – impulsivity
  3. Pressure to succeed – imposed or imagined
  4. High-stakes tests or assignments
  5. Gamesmanship – rule-benders, free-riders
  6. Inaccessible instructors
  7. Unclear instructions/prohibitions
  8. Lack awareness of risks and consequences

The top three reasons students say that caused them or their peers to cheat, lie, or steal in violation of their honor pledges are:

  • “We didn’t know” – the ethical boundaries for the course activities are not clearly specified. Sometimes, students are unable of what types of behavior is acceptable in the course and what is not, e.g. when does collaborative work on class assignments and preparing for exams end, and when does individual effort have to begin and be accounted for.
  • “They didn’t care” – the connection with and empathy or understanding shown by faculty members, whom some students feel are the ultimate designers of their learning process and arbitrators of the results of their course work.
  • “We couldn’t cope” – the trials and tribulations of college life may be overwhelming with competing demands on their time, and some students resort to short cuts to meet the requirements of the instructors and those of university life.

Faculty members and administrators, on the other hand, have their own theories on students’ integrity problems. They top reasons they cited for dishonorable conduct are:

  • Laziness
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulse control
  • Poor time management
  • Single-minded pursuit of an objective
  • Exaggerated sense of immunity or entitlement

They recommend the following strategies to prevent malfeasance and encourage good behavior:

  1. Encourage Constructive and Nurturing Contact Between Students and Faculty
  2. Develop Cooperation and Accountability Among Students
  3. Design Active Learning Activities and Plagiarism-Proof Assignments
  4. Give Prompt Feedback to Demonstrate and Reinforce High Standards
  5. Emphasize Time on Task to Reduce Short Cuts - Procrastination and Impulsivity

In essence, the instructors’ and administrators’ dominant strategies for dealing with student honor code violations are threefold:

  • “Make it clear!” –maintain clear and appropriate standards for the courses and ‘over-communicate’ them, including ‘behavior markers’ and integrity standards for the course and what specific behavior might constitute violations of the honor code and integrity standards.
  • “Think it through!” – pay attention to course activities to ensure they are cheater-proof, giving assignments with reasonable timeframes and level of difficulty, offer access to students who need additional guidance, etc.
  • “Tell them why!” – explain the reasons for course requirements to motivate students to comply with the rules of the course and college, and to compete fairly for grades.
Hypotheses and Analyses

To make sense of these finding and derive a coherent set of strategies for dealing with the issues concerned, the author proposes three hypotheses and a set of five recommendations below.

Hypothesis 1: Learning is difficult, adaptive work that are sometimes beyond the practiced skills, existing solutions, and current competencies of the students.

Hypothesis 2: When instructors require students to perform beyond their ability to manage or above their life circumstances allow them to cope, they create a disequilibrium.

Hypothesis 3: When faced with disequilibrium, some students may resort to short cuts and quick fixes that violate the honor code.  

Hypothesis 4: Instructors can design coursework and classroom conditions that will affect the physical, mental and emotional conditions of students and their ability to learn ethically.

Hypothesis 5: Contemplative practices offer some competencies that can help better prepare and enable students to manage disequilibria, undertake adaptive work, and perform ethically. 

Difficult learning in colleges requires focused attention, problem-solving, discipline, and often experimentation in adopting new studying methods and learning strategies. Routine course requirements can be handled with practiced skills and existing solutions that generally yield predictable results. This use of past approaches is generally favored by learners to restore order, provide safety, or guarantee results. However, college life and coursework generally present “new challenges” in college involve struggle and adaptation. Instructors may assign difficult problems that are beyond their practiced competencies. They may set expectations that upset the students’ equilibrium, undermine their security, and diminish their sense of competence. These demands require of students tough adaptive work in the midst of the chaos of college life.

Willingness to try something new; test ‘what works and what does not’ may become a prerequisite for students to secure the grades they desire or simply keep in good academic standing.  Students may cope with difficulty and uncertainty by the following strategies:

  • Denial – Underestimate the effort involved, persist with past solutions or practiced repertoire
  • Procrastination – Avoiding to take responsibility, and adapt with greater effort
  • Impulsivity – make undisciplined choices near the deadlines to restore the equilibrium

When these behaviors and measures cause them to falter or fail, students resort to risky strategies:

  • Short cuts or quick fixes to try to regain control over their grades and academic standing.
  • Risky behavior to get desired results or avoid an averse outcome.
  • Compromises that violate the honor code and jeopardize their integrity.

It is through this process that students find themselves ethically compromised and in danger of losing all that they have come to college to pursue. What happens when they fail, jeopardizing their integrity and breaching the honor code? Colleges typically subject them to punitive measures that derail their academic careers. At the very least, those measures further upset the equilibrium of students’ lives without improving their ability to cope or adapt to the difficult requirements of college courses.

Contemplative Practices in the Classroom

In light of the above hypotheses and analyses, practices focused on promoting mindfulness through contemplation, introspection, and reflection may help some students regain their equilibria and gain new skills of coping and performing. Contemplative practices support difficult and adaptive learning processes but they can be difficult to identify and adopt in a higher education environment. When these strategies are left unexplored, their potential benefits for enhancing student coping behavior and skills for difficult learning remain untapped. Some students will resort to risky cheating behaviors that threaten to compromise their integrity and derail their academic careers. Attention needs to be brought to the connections between contemplative practices and the pursuit of difficult, adaptive learning in order to address the hidden problems of violations of the honor code. There are at least three benefit of contemplative practices in the classroom that are directly related to conditions and competencies for difficult learning and prevention of ethical missteps: (1) stress control; (2) learning effectiveness skills; and (3) creation of a safe, respectful and honest culture in the classroom.

First, findings of research suggest that mindfulness practices can counteract the deleterious effects of stress in students’ lives and classroom dynamics. Stress is part of student life because of difficult learning required in some courses. It is shown to degrade the functions of sectors of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which is essential for problem-solving, creativity, and reasoning. Stress also impedes the functioning of the hippocampus, the brain center for regulating learning, memory and emotional regulation (Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar & Heim, 2009; Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2014). Attentional practices in the classroom can help prepare the students to cope with stress and prepare for a physiological and mental condition that would allow for learning.

Second, there have also been studies that showed the importance of the mindfulness practices in facilitating deep listening, attentive communication, goal-setting, and teamwork in the education process and the development of cognitive and emotional competencies for full functioning within the classroom and without (Goleman, 2006). Other studies have linked contemplative exercises to neuroplasticity; the structural changes in the brain that governs learning, memory, emotional regulation and cognition (Lantieri, 2008). The moment-by-moment awareness fosters the effective management of adaptive challenges involving experimentation, trial-and-error, problem-solving discipline and focused attention that is shown to be in serious short supply in the students today (Goleman, 2006).

Third, classroom practices like using mindful language, peace corner, and scheduled quiet moments (Rechtschaffen, 2014, 95-104; Lantieri, 2008) can enable both students and instructors to have moments of inner connectedness and self-awareness during a class session. They tend to rein in the reptilian brain that controls our hungers, desires, protective and reactionary (fight-flight-freeze) behaviors that tend to cause driven and risky behaviors. The mammalian brain rules our emotions and relational behaviors while the neocortex allows for higher reasoning that enables students to reason morally and think through the consequences of their actions before taking them. These exercises can create an environment of safety and calm that allows for thoughts and feelings to surface, be acknowledged, and let go of. They foster an atmosphere of compassionate teaching and heartfulness (ibid. p.99) that can help communication, expression, and attentiveness in the classroom. In so doing, the reactionary reptilian brain and the capricious mammalian brain can be brought under the command of the neocortex that rules more rationally and reasons more ethically, hence preventing desperate resort to quick fixes and short cuts that violates the honor code.

Research by the author have not completely delved into the specific contemplative strategies that can be introduced into the classroom specifically to address the above concerns. This will be the subject of further research and they may be reported in a future conference.

Concluding Remarks

Students come to school with expectations of transformative learning and personal growth. But this journey is fraught with difficulty and dangers. Some will lose themselves and violate the honor system in their pursuit of desired results or to avoid averse outcomes. They may resort to cheating, plagiarizing, falsifying attendance and research in undisciplined attempts to regain control and restore order. Contemplative practices may help students cope with these difficulties and dangers as they adapt and cope with the rigor of academic pursuits in their chaotic and challenging college lives.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

                                                                                                         --Machiavelli: The Prince

Select Bibliography

Barbezat, D. and Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359-371.

Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional Intelligence. 10th Anniversary Edition, Bantam, New York, NY.

Holxel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Oliver, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.

Kabat-Zinn, M. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). “Mindfulness in the Classrooms” in Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Hyperion, New York.

Lantieri, L. (2008). Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, Sounds True, Boulder, CO.

Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behavior and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 10: 434-445.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N.B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental training enhances attentional stability: Neural and behavioral evidence, Journal of Neuroscience, 29(42), 13418-13427.

MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D. A., Zenesco, A. P. Jacobs, T. L., King B. G., & Saron, C. D., (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological Science, 21(6), 829-839.

Rechtschaffen D. (2014). The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Company.

Roberts-Wolfe, D., Sacchet, M., & Britton, W. B. (2009, March 26). Changes in emotional memory recall following mindfulness meditation vs music training: Implications for affective disorders. Paper presented at the 13th Annual Research Symposium on Mental Health Sciences, Brown Medical School, Providence, RI.

Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., & Austin, J. A. (2008).  Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research. Northampton, MA: Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Shapiro, S. (2014). Mindful Discipline. New Harbinger Press, Oakland, CA.

Author Biography

Tay Keong Tan is Director of International Studies and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Radford University. He teaches courses in international studies and political science and research on anti-corruption and governance. He is also a Fellow at the Institute of Policy and Governance at Virginia Tech.

He is co-author of a recent book, Anti-Corruption: Implementing Curriculum Change in Management Education, on integrating anti-corruption content into the curricula of management schools around the globe (Greenleaf Publishers, July 2015).

He is also co-editor of two new books, Beyond the Bottom Line: Integrating the UN Global Compact into Management Practices, and Redefining Success: Integrating the UN Global Compact into Management Education (expected winter of 2016 and spring of 2017 respectively by Greenleaf Publishers). Both books are on introducing the global sustainability agenda and social responsibility into management education worldwide.

For more than a decade, Tay Keong worked an independent consultant specializing in governance, anti-corruption, ethics, risk assessment, and public management. In 2012 and 2013, he worked for World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and Partnership for Transparency Fund in field assignments and international development projects in Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

Dr. Tan has a doctorate in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a member of the New River Zen Community. 


Contact Information:

Tay Keong Tan, PhD

Director of International Studies

Department of Political Science

Radford University

230 Russell Hall

Box 6945

Radford, Virginia 24142


Cell Phone: +1 910-228 1716


[1] The Radford University Honor System and Honor Pledge. Accessed on April 1, 2016 at:

Conscious Learners: Can Mindfulness Build Integrity in the Classroom?
Collection 2016 Virginia Tech Contemplative Practices Conference Papers
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users


Contemplative Practices for the 21st Century University

March 10-12, 2016

At the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, Blacksburg, Virginia

Author Tay Keong Tan, Ph.D.