Redesigning Academic Courses to Support Connection, Values, & Well-Being

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Redesigning Academic Courses to Support Connection, Values, & Well-Being

Spotlight on CSC's 2021 Institute for Contemplative Teaching and Learning

November 17, 2021
In June 2021, UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) and the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) piloted a week-long Contemplative Institute for Teaching and Learning attended by 20 UVA instructors with a combined 277 years of teaching. The purpose of the Institute was for participating faculty to explore what it means to be a contemplative professor, to consider how course design, activities, and assignments can build students’ capacities for awareness, connection, and care, and to investigate how contemplation supports the larger work of institution- and systems-change in higher education. Fifteen of the 20 faculty who attended the Institute have continued their explorations of contemplative teaching and learning as members of a 2021–22 faculty learning community facilitated by CSC.
Here a few of them describe how these experiences have positively impacted their personal and professional lives this semester, including by increasing a sense of connection to their students, increasing their own well-being, offering ideas for contemplative teaching and learning activities, helping them better align their personal and professional values with their course designs, and enhancing their sense of community with fellow UVA faculty.
Increased Connection with Students
Andrew Rivard Hill says his continued practice of contemplative activities this semester has generated a sense of interconnectedness with the students in his “Accelerated Elementary French” course. “I feel much more connected to the students (and myself) this semester because I take time to slow down and appreciate being there and spending time with them,” he says.
Hill offers the following example: “Last week, after doing meditations in French each morning before class so far this semester, I caught myself wanting to cover as much grammar as possible for my students before an exam and skipped the meditation at the beginning of class. That particular day about halfway through class, a student raised their hand to ask if we were going to do a meditation, which pushed me back into a more reflective mode with my students at the end of class.”
Hill says he realized that incorporating meditation in the course is not just about fostering relaxation. “Pedagogically, the meditations offer intense listening practice. By concentrating on how we are actually doing, using contemplative pauses and strategies can definitely help with what we are doing—learning French” says Hill, who explains the particular impact of a meditation that mentioned les cadeaux de la vie (gifts from life): “We were studying family members for that unit and when we debriefed the practice, I shared with students that I consider my three-year-old daughter a ‘gift.’ Many students responded by sharing about (chosen and given) family members they considered gifts. It was a powerful moment.” 
Deborah Barry, a School of Medicine faculty member says, “The Institute has helped me reframe how I consider student well-being in the context of classroom learning. I mostly work with faculty to design courses for second-year medical students, so I am thinking more and more about these broad course level issues in learner well-being. If there is a stressful, high stakes exam coming, what are the strategies that we can employ as instructors to diffuse the tension? Are there specific mindfulness techniques that can be employed with the whole class, one-on-one, or in skills-based workshops? Can I assist the students (and the faculty) to reframe some negative feedback into a growth opportunity?”
Contemplative Teaching and Learning Activities
Some faculty borrowed or adapted practices from the Institute directly into their own courses. For example, Tomomi Sato, senior lecturer in East Asian Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, incorporated a gratitude exercise from the Institute into her summer intensive Japanese course. During the Institute participants had been invited to send anonymous thank you notes to each other via a Google form. In the notes they were asked to express appreciation for a fellow participant’s particular contribution. Faculty could submit as many notes as they liked. 
CSC’s Karolyn Kinane who facilitated the Institute along with Dorothe Bach of CTE says, “It is a way to acknowledge and honor the gifts each person brings to a class or a workshop. It’s also a chance for us as facilitators to see the value of conversations and actions we may have missed. And expressing gratitude towards others can build community as well as help us feel more resourced and able to get some perspective on perceived stress.”
Although Sato eventually adopted the exercise for her own students, she says she initially resisted the activity during the Institute. “I am not vocal,” says Sato, “As a non-native speaker, I don’t speak up as much, and I felt like I did not contribute as much as other people had.” 
Sato believed she wouldn’t receive any gratitude notes for these reasons, but fellow Institute participants sent her several. She says, “I was surprised to receive notes and it helped me recognize that I could do something for the group. I often feel inferior due to the language barrier, and I don't want to stand out. This activity gave me encouragement and confidence that I am valuable, says Sato, who required her Japanese students to send one thank you note and gave them the option to submit additional notes again every Friday. “It encouraged students and also it made me see other aspects of students that I didn’t usually see,” she says.
In addition, Sato says the Institute gave her the opportunity to reflect on the underlying values conveyed by certain course assignments, inspiring her to revise one of the descriptive writing prompts she’d give students as a review exercise. 
“I used to ask students to imagine they could have the dream home of a multimillionaire and to describe their dream home,” says Sato. Now she asks her students to write about the kind of house they would like to build for someone else. “Now students have a chance to think about what other people may feel and need and to find something that they could do for them,” she says.
Sato’s experience with the Institute also had her thinking deeply about her personal values as well. “The Institute prompted me to think about what kind of person I want to be and that I hope for students to be. Ten years from now, it would be nice if they remember Japanese, and more than that, I want them to be thoughtful of others. I now believe my teaching can do both,” says Sato.
Aligning Values with Course Design
Lysandra Cook, Associate Professor of Education, says the Institute similarly prompted her to refocus on core values and consider how to more explicitly align those values with her fall courses “Classroom and Behavior Management” and “Classroom Management and Behavioral Assessment.” “This semester I created a statement of purpose for myself as an educator, and I used that as the starting place for co-developing our course values,” says Cook. 
“In each of my three sections I facilitated the classes in developing and fine-tuning a set of class values. Each course created unique sets that focused on how we can demonstrate respect and take responsibility. I read the values at the start of each class session. Mid-semester feedback from the students has been very positive. The values have been followed in all classes and students have been open to taking risks,” Cook says.
The Institute also inspired Pia Adler, faculty at the Center for American English Language & Culture (CAELC), to bring her values more clearly into her professional life, including by introducing contemplative practices to students in her course “English for Academic Purposes: Listening Comprehension and Pronunciation.”
Although initially Adler was concerned that her students would find these activities odd, she now says, “Getting tips from other teachers [at the Institute] and diving into ​the research lent me the support to go deeper, ​articulate my values and discover how to incorporate them into my teaching.”
Adler says the Institute also prompted her to add citizenship to the existing learning outcomes of pronunciation and listening. For example, to her objectives for the course she added: “taking responsibility for reflecting on and being proactive in your learning process; being receptive to a transformation of attitudes, ideas, and knowledge within a diverse cultural setting; and striving to expand your awareness as caretaker of the human (as well as natural) world during your tenure at UVA.”
Adler says, “The overarching concept that I keep coming back to ​since the Institute is the link between social justice and contemplative pedagogy. I’m really starting to see the power of self-inquiry, raising self-awareness, and getting to places of self-acceptance. This is both very simple and kind of profound.”
Going forward, Adler wants to work even more intentionally at the intersection of contemplation and inclusion: “I’m working on a ‘questioning assumptions’ activity for my writing class. We’re talking about crossing cultures here, and I understand this may be uncomfortable. I want to do this with care. So that will be the next area of reflection and growth for me,” she says.
Sandra Seidel, Assistant Dean and faculty in Biology who attended the Institute as part of developing her course "Mindful Decision-Making: Integrating Body, Mind and Heart," also notes the importance of contemplative practice for keeping her living in alignment with her values and ensuring those values show up in her professional life. 
“Contemplative teaching is about practice more so than theory,” says Seidel. “I can read and read and read, but I find that I must have clear and consistent practices to share with my students. My own habits of mind, thought and action provide a model (I hope) that is consistent with what I introduce to students in the classroom,” she says.
Faculty Well-Being and Community Building
In their anonymous surveys at the close of the Institute, many participants expressed gratitude for the sense of community they found with fellow faculty participants. Seidel elaborates on the critical connection between that sense of community and transformative work as a faculty: “Community is essential. There was trust and (egoless) sharing among faculty at the Institute that provided encouragement, support and kindness,” she says.
Sato also deeply appreciates the opportunity to work in community with UVA colleagues. “Only a certain kind of emotion seems welcome in the workplace, but at the Institute I had a different experience of UVA—an experience of being with other faculty and being listened to, feeling less alone, and able to share a range of emotions about experiences and what I really think,” she says.
In addition, Sato recognizes how the Institute’s care for faculty’s own well-being can assist with transforming professional environments. “If I stop to think about well-being—doing something for self-care, meditation—it helps! I can recognize, reflect, and know myself. It helps my teaching to be kind. These practices help me be kinder to myself and other people,” says Sato.
Barry says she’s taking better care of herself after the Institute: “As a caregiver both in the classroom and outside,” she says, “I have been able to draw some more clear boundaries around my time because I have started to pay more attention to my own needs. I have had an easier time asking for help, i.e., finding carpools for my children, or asking collaborators to take on slightly more of a project because I don't have the bandwidth.”
From the sentiments expressed by participating faculty, it’s clear the 2021 Contemplative Institute for Teaching and Learning deeply affected both their professional and personal lives, and the experience is continuing to inspire growth and well-being in these areas.

The 2022 Contemplative Institute for Teaching and Learning will be offered in-person at UVA, and all UVA instructors will be invited to apply. To learn more about the Institute, CSC’s other faculty programming, or contemplative pedagogy in general, contact Karolyn Kinane at

This is one of four articles in the series Spotlight on CSC's Faculty Engagement Work, Summer/Fall 2021.

[Pictured clockwise from top left: Andrew Rivard Hill, Deborah Barry, Tomomi Sato, Sandra Seidel, Pia Adler, Lysandra Cook]


Learn more about CSC's Faculty Engagement program and see other examples here.