I’ve been increasingly amazed by the sheer breadth of benefits of meditation for students. What was once something I dismissed as niche or woo-woo is now mainstream. The benefits are backed up by robust science. I now wholeheartedly endorse meditation for students, and recommend it to many of my exam success coaching clients.
Meditation has been shown to fundamentally alter the brain itself, supporting the development of brain structures that handle attention (Davidson, 2008; Chiesa & Serretti, 2010), learning (Hölzel et al, 2011) and emotion (Lutz, 2008; Desbordes, 2012).
All this leads to an absolute wealth of benefits ranging from sharper concentration to better memory, from stress relief to improved mental health.
I’ve distilled 2-3 decades of research into 24 mind-expanding benefits of meditation practice for students – read on to discover them all!
Mindfulness vs meditation?
Quick aside before we get into it…
… am I talking about mindfulness or meditation? And what’s the difference, anyway?
Meditation is the practice of “extended contemplation to achieve focused attention”, and comes in many forms.
Mindfulness is simply “awareness of one’s internal state and surroundings”, and can also come in many forms.
Put the two ideas together, and you have a “mindfulness meditation”. That’s a way to training your attention (as if it were a muscle!) to achieve a mental state of calm concentration.
“Mindfulness meditation” is what most people mean by either word, and that’s predominantly what this article – and the studies I reference – are talking about.
Definitions based on the American Psychology Association Dictionary of Psychology
Meditation benefits students’ concentration and focus
Mindfulness meditation has a moderate but significant impact on attention (Sedlmeier et al, 2012).
1. Improved attention
2. Fewer distractions, better focus
Mindfulness meditation helps individuals focus, for example, reducing “mindless reading” where they’re scanning the text without really absorbing the meaning (Zanesco et al, 2016).
3. Concentrate for longer
Mindfulness meditation also improves performance on tasks that need a concentration span over a long time (Jha et al, 2011).
Meditation has benefits for students’ stress levels
Meditation has substantial benefits emotional benefits (Sedlmeier et al, 2012), such as reduced stress, improved well-being and higher self-esteem.
4. Lower stress levels
Reducing stress is one of the key reasons many adults take up meditation. There’s good evidence that mindfulness meditation programmes reduce feelings of stress at all ages: in adults (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009 review of 10 studies), in adolescents (Metz et al, 2013), and even in pre-schoolers (Thieery et al, 2016).
5. Cope better with stress
Reducing stress is great, but it’s rarely possible to entirely eliminate it from stressful situations, especially when a big assignment deadline or major exams is looming.
6. Helps with exam nerves
Worrying about the exam, test-day nerves… lots of students get the jitters at some point as the stakes get higher. The good news is that students who have practiced meditation experience less test anxiety (Napoli et al, 2015).
7. Improved self-esteem
8. Greater well-being and happiness
Meditation may even make you happier!
People’s minds wander 47% of the time, according to Harvard researchers (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010). That’s nearly half of our waking time! Mind-wandering often triggers unhappiness, either through ruminating on future worries or past events, or through frustration we’re not making progress on what we’re supposed to do.
So a focused mind not only gets more done, it seems to be a happier mind too.
9. Better resilience
Some researchers report that meditation can even boost students’ resilience (Hennelly, 2010), perhaps because they are better equipped to cope with stressful situations.
Meditation has benefits for students’ social interactions
10. Improved social skills
One benefit of meditation for students that I hadn’t expected when researching for this article was the improved social skills.
Meditation even seems to make the world a slightly more trusting place: students who meditate even show greater trust in their friends (Mendelson et al, 2010).
11. Greater empathy and compassion
Students who meditate show a reduction in behavioural problems at school, whether they’re young children (Joyce et al, 2010) or teens / adolescents (Barnes et al, 2003). They also tend to show less aggression towards other (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010).
Meditation makes students “smarter”…
… though please don’t take that out of context!!
What I really mean here is that “meditation improves specific cognitive functions”.
Or to cut the jargon, meditation boosts certain aspects of how the brain processes and handles information.
The cognitive benefits of meditation tend to be smaller than some of the other benefits (Sedlmeier et al, 2012). That’s perhaps not entirely surprising – if meditation could massively improve your IQ or memory, we’d all be doing it by now!!
Nevertheless, there are some significant benefits here, and even though the size of the benefits isn’t huge, together, they add up to a valuable little boost to academic performance.
12. Improved working memory
One easily-measured cognitive function (that’s strongly correlated with IQ) is “working memory”, in other words, the amount of information the brain can hold live, online, in the moment at any one time.
It’s a temporary store, a bit like RAM on a computer, which determines how many software programmes / browser tabs we can have open at once without the computer crashing. Psychologists measure it with tasks like the N-back test (take it here and measure your own working memory!).
13. Improved response inhibition
Another aspect of cognitive function is our ability to control an initial instinct, and if necessary, block it, before acting upon it. As with working memory, psychologists love testing for response inhibition, partly because it’s very easy to measure (e.g. with the Stroop task – great fun if you’ve never done one!).
Meditation improves response inhibition, which is good news for impulsive students who tend to rush into an answer and get it wrong at first (Flook et al, 2010).
Metacognition refers to how we think about our thoughts, for example, planning, monitoring and evaluating our learning, or our feelings. It’s a strong predictor of academic success, and there’s evidence that it improves after a programme of meditation practice (Teasdale et al, 2002).
15. Meditation might even change the very fabric of a student’s brain
There’s even evidence that meditation can have a positive impact on brain structures associated with learning and problem-solving: such as a more developed prefrontal cortex, which handles processes like planning and problem-solving (Chiesa & Serretti, 2010), and a higher density of grey matter in brain regions associated with learning and memory (Hölzel et al, 2011).
Meditation supports good mental (and even physical) health in students
16. Improved sleep quality
Sleep underpins students’ ability to learn, concentrate, as well as supporting good general physical and mental health (read Matthew Walker’s superb Why We Sleep). Students who participated in a mindfulness programme showed improved sleep patterns (Bootzin and Stevens, 2005).
The quality of sleep itself may be higher, too: studies have shown more favourable “brain wave” activity during sleep amongst those who practice meditation (Mason et al, 1997).
17. Relieves anxiety
Numerous studies have shown that meditation can substantially reduce anxiety amongst students at school (McKeering and Hwang, 2019, review of 13 separate studies, of which 11 showed positive benefits).
Psychologists often see anxiety as heavily linked to worrying about the future. So by training the mind to focus on the present moment, meditation may be reducing such unhelpful future-gazing and therefore lower anxiety.
18. Helps alleviate depression
If anxiety is triggered by worrying about the future, depression is triggered by worrying about the past.
Again, meditation helps the mind stay in the present, avoids over-thinking what’s happened in the past, thereby alleviating depression.
19. Benefits for students with ADHD (probably)
Unsurprisingly, given the benefits for attention and focus, some researchers think that meditation should help students who have ADHD (Zylowska et al, 2008). The idea seems highly plausible, but a recent review of the scientific studies to date is inconclusive (Evans et al, 2018). More evidence needed here, then…
20. And even improvements in physical health
This makes sense when you think that high anxiety can lead to physical problems such as heart health. By reducing anxiety, meditation may also be reducing physical problems that often come with anxiety.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that meditation improves students’ academic outcomes
You might expect that all this myriad of benefits might show up in improved performance in class and on tests and exams.
Well, you’d be right: there is certainly evidence that students who meditate do better.
My own instinct is that the biggest benefits are seen among those students who struggle with one or more of the problems I’ve listed so far, such as particular problems with anxiety, or mind-wandering, or stress.
21. Meditation improves knowledge retention during lectures
Students who meditated scored 11% higher on a post-lecture quiz, compared to those who did not (Ramsburg and Youmans, 2014).
22. Higher GPA among college students
Fiebert and Mead (1981) reported that college students on a meditation programme scored an average GPA or 2.95 (out of a possible 4.0). That’s nearly 20% higher than their peers who did not mediate scored 2.48. Note that the evidence is mixed here: several studies since have been somewhat less conclusive (Wei Lin & Jung Mai, 2016).
23. Teacher reported outcomes
Teachers report that students who meditate show higher motivation, confidence, competence and effectiveness (Hennelly, 2010).
24. Improved performance with learning disabilities
Mindfulness practice also helps students with learning disabilities (Beauchemin et al, 2008).
Now over to you: ready to practice meditation?
Ready to go further?
Start by listening to Claire Kelly from the Mindfulness In Schools Project, who talked with me on the Exam Study Expert podcast. It’s a great way to find out more about how you can get started with mindfulness meditation, whether you’re a student looking to get started yourself, or a teacher looking to bring mindfulness training to your school.
And if you’re not sure how to get started with meditation, then I wholeheartedly recommend Headspace.*
Headspace has some fantastic stuff on their specifically for students, including on exam stress and test taking anxiety. They’ve also got some wonderful sections on content (stories / soundscapes) to help you sleep, and even curated focus music playlists. So I’m thrilled that Exam Study Expert and Headspace now have a partnership. You can click here to get started with Headspace for free.*
*I may get compensated if you use Headspace, but this has no bearing on my decision to recommend it to you. In fact, I had been personally using and enthusiastically recommending Headspace for 3-4 years before we started our commercial partnership.