Using Mindfulness to Increase Student Self-Awareness and Self-Advocacy through First Year Seminar Style Courses


Most first year college students at Appalachian State University are required to take a First-Year Seminar course. These courses have a shared set of learning outcomes with primary emphasis on critical and creative thinking, communicating effectively, and examining a single issue from multiple perspectives.  One of the benefits of first-year seminar courses at many universities, is the ability to blend the learning outcomes mentioned above with a topic-specific focus that brings students together who have common interests.  Like other First Year Seminar instructors, I am keenly aware of the need to strike a balance between the topical focus and helping students develop the skills they need for college success.  With this balance in mind, I incorporate some learning activities into my courses that help first year college students transition from reliance on parents to self-reliance. A large part of this self-reliance relates to recognizing and meeting their own needs. This ability to recognize they need help and to ask for that help is something that all students need to develop in order to be successful at asking professors for assignment clarification and support in understanding course content. This is true for any student, and especially so for the topic that binds students in my first-year seminar together – navigating the college transition for students with disabilities.

Whether the student has a disability or not, building a foundation of self-awareness and self-advocacy will be critical for them to accomplish their college goals. To this end, I infuse activities throughout my courses that help students become more aware of their own emotions, thoughts, strengths, challenges, and how they let others know what they need or desire. This case study explores mindfulness and other contemplative strategies used to help students develop the intrapersonal skills necessary to become strong self-advocates. Before students can self-advocate, they must have sufficient self-awareness to:

  1. Notice their physical and emotional selves,
  2. Recognize their thought patterns, desires, and unmet needs,
  3. Consider ways to meet those needs, and
  4. Communicate their needs and desires to others.

Some of the activities and tips included in this case study might be applicable to any first-year seminar, and others would be more appropriate for the students who have various disabilities. As you read the case study through that lens, apply the ideas that would be applicable to your specific situation. I teach two different sections of First Year Seminar. One focuses specifically on the autism spectrum. The other focuses on disability in general.  The FYS focused on disability has been intentionally integrated with students in the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (a program at Appalachian State for students who have intellectual disabilities- something becoming more common on post-secondary campuses today thanks to the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-315). Other instructional practices highlighted in this case study are drawn  from another integrated seminar course I teach for the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program. That course focuses on whole-person development throughout the transition to adulthood.

In this case study, only the assignments in these seminar courses meant to encourage student self-awareness and self-monitoring will be discussed.  The specific practices offered here can be implemented effectively with students of all cognitive levels and would be useful for any freshman-seminar style class regardless of student population.


Self-awareness and self-monitoring are necessary precursors to student self-advocacy.  For instance, students who self-monitor are able to keep track of assignment due dates, assess their performance, and take corrective action if needed. In the classroom context, students self-advocate by asking for clarification or help on assignments or course content.

In this case study,  you will learn ways to help students develop:

  1. An awareness of their physical and emotional selves.
  2. An awareness of their thought patterns, unmet needs, and coping strategies they can use.
  3. The ability to effectively self-monitor their performance.

UDL Alignment

The instructional practices outlined in this case study focus on developing self-awareness and self-monitoring skills. Thus, at the core of these activities is the need for students to engage with these two concepts in multiple ways. You will notice that the activities depicted below (that are infused into seminar classes) enable students to build self-determination and self-monitoring skills by engaging with the content in different ways (e.g. meditation, visualization, drawing, poetry, etc.) and through different types of interactions (e.g. individual personal reflections, group discussions, presentations, writing, etc.).

Mindfulness SkillUDL Outcomes
Self-AwarenessProviding Multiple Means of Representation
*multiple ways of representing what they know themselves Providing Multiple Means of Engagement
*ensuring relevance by allowing them to focus on themselves
*encouraging self-reflection
*assisting in the development of coping strategies
*fostering a sense of classroom community
Self-MonitoringProviding Multiple Means of Engagement
*setting and achieving goals
*giving students feedback on their performance
*developing self-assessment and reflection skills

Instructional Practice

Each instructional practice described below will include the overall goal(s) of the practice, implementation instructions, and special considerations.

Short Guided Meditations

Goal. Short meditations support students in developing coping strategies, becoming more attentive and aware during class, and increasing self-awareness all while establishing a predictable start to class. At the end of my first semester using this strategy, I asked students to report on their experience of starting class with these short meditations. 81% reported that it helped them focus on what we were doing in class, 77%  said it helped them be more self-aware, 65% reported it helped them to be more self-reflective. Other benefits reported by a majority of students included feeling less distracted during the class period and lowering overall feelings of stress and anxiety.  Comments like these ones were common: “it helped me relax and settle down before class” and “it helped me relax and take a few minutes to get prepared for class.”

Instructions. Instructors can use a variety of short meditations at the beginning of each class. Meditations may guide students to note feelings, sensations around them, and thoughts they have, all while returning to the breath. In a body scan meditation, students are guided to pay attention to their physical bodies, noting any tightness in various parts of their body and being instructed to release the tension held there. With stress being a common experience for college students, guided meditations focused on letting go of stress or anxiety are useful.  The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center provides a series of audio-recorded meditations. Two of these meditations are three minutes. Instructors may also elect to use short guided meditation Apps such as Calm, Headspace or Simple Habit.

There are also a variety of mindfulness meditations on YouTube varying in length from one minute to more than an hour. Some links to shorter 1-3 minute meditations are:

2-Minute Guided Meditation to Release Stress

Considerations. I make a point to provide the links to these meditations and a few longer ones in my online course site to make it easier for students to practice guided meditation on their own. A few students have commented on this being helpful for them in my performance evaluations.  While an occasional student appreciates the visual imagery of meditations on YouTube, it is my impression that students engage more fully in the meditation practice when the video audio is played but the projector screen is off.  Additionally, I find that most students prefer to have the lights dimmed or turned completely off during these meditations. This simple act of turning off the lights gives students a break from fluorescent lighting which I suspect is the appeal of this arrangement. It is helpful to ask students arriving late to class to please remain outside the room until the meditation is over. This reduces distraction for the rest of the class. On busy class days, I may elect to simply begin class with one minute of quiet in which we focus on breathing.

My Story Presentation

Goal. The My Story Presentation is a useful tool to foster classroom community and to increase students comfort with reflecting on their own lives and communicating about themselves.

Instruction. Students create a presentation that includes biographical information, such as, their name, hometown or places they’ve lived, high school attended, and family background. Students are then asked to choose between sharing a significant experience, relationship, event, place, or insight they’ve had and why this is significant to them OR to discuss their strengths, interests, and challenges.

Considerations. Although offered as a choice, some students include both the significant experience and their strengths and challenges. Thus, students can create the level of challenge they desire for the assignment. This presentation helps to foster classroom community when students share it with their classmates rather than simply turning it into the instructor. I have noticed that students tend to share the same information whether the assignment is for instructor eyes only or for presenting to the class. While I expected students to be less forthcoming near the beginning of the semester than in the middle, thus far I have not noticed much difference in what students choose to share based on presentation timing.

The Incredible Five Point Scale (Buron & Cook, 2003)

Goal. This practice allows the instructor to get a quick read on the emotional state of all students in the class. This practice assists students in paying attention to their own internal states. When students are aware of their emotional state, they are empowered to maintain self-control using personal coping strategies.

Instruction. From time to time in class, instructors can ask students to rate their level of stress, anxiety, or discomfort on a five point scale with one representing “I feel great. I am experiencing no stress, anxiety, or discomfort” and five meaning, “I’m very uncomfortable. I’m about to lose control.” Students can easily indicate on one hand whether they are at a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 simply by holding up that many fingers.

Considerations. This type of self-rating is easy to do in class as a way for a faculty member to judge student comfort with a particular topic or class discussion. This allows the faculty member to determine whether to proceed with the class topic, switch to another class activity, or engage in immediate classroom-based self-care, such as leading the students in taking deep breaths or completing a short meditation. In some cases it may be beneficial to hold individual meetings with a student when their self-ratings would indicate that the student perceives they are not under stress but their behaviors in the classroom environment lead the instructor to believe otherwise. If certain students find the 5-point scale particularly helpful, they can be given small cue cards with the numbers 1-5 listed for use in other environments.

Sensations Body Drawing

Goal. The Sensations Body Drawing helps students be mindful of their physical body and of the way emotions impact the body. During this activity students tune into any sensations present in their body, express the sensations through drawing and are then asked to decide how to respond to the messages their body is giving them.

Instructions. Students are given the following instructions, “Pay attention to your body. Where are you feeling some sensation? You don’t have to have words to describe the sensation or its meaning. On the image, locate where the sensation is and draw what the sensation feels like. It is okay to name the sensation rather than draw it, if that is easier.”

Students can be asked to complete this task using a black and white line drawing of a human body (on an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper). Click here for a ready-made handout. Alternatively, using a large roll of butcher paper, the instructor can outline a student’s body for added connection to the idea that  “this image represents me.” If you want to encourage a group of students to share their responses, the students could be asked to complete the assignment on the same large body drawing.

Given time, the instructor and students can discuss the different sensations they are experiencing, why this might be the case, and what they can do to honor, cope with, and address these sensations.

Considerations. It is important to support students as they work on this task. Some students will find it easy to identify their physical and emotional sensations. Other students may have never tried to pay attention to the messages their physical body is giving them. For instance, one student in my class initially said they were experiencing no emotion, they just felt “blank.” I advised him to just sit with it for a little while and continue to check in with different parts of his body for any sensations that might be there. A while later he said, “I have this tightened swirly sensation in the pit of my stomach” so I asked him to draw that on his paper. In the weeks and months following this activity, the student continued to identify bodily sensations and we worked with him on putting a name to the feeling.

Since group processing of sensations is a second step, time permitting, I followed up the student’s comment about the tight swirly sensation by asking the class if anyone else had ever had a similar sensation. Two other members of the class said they have that sensation from time to time and one named it “anxiety.” I was then able to ask about the various causes of each person’s anxiety and facilitate discussion about the self-care strategies members of the class use when coping with anxiety or related stressors. Since my students and I completed this assignment on a single large drawing, it was instructive to see that more people were experiencing sensations in the brain and heart areas of the body. This allowed an opportunity to compare and contrast the nature of those sensations. It also created an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge how some recent events were impacting us and to plan ways to engage in self-care (i.e. taking a walk, listening to soothing music, talking with a trusted friend, taking time to meditate).

This same exercise may at times reveal a student having physical pain worthy of a referral to a doctor. The student may have been aware of their pain but been putting off the doctor visit or the student may not have tuned into their body in quite some time in order to notice that they were in pain.

Where Are You in This Image?

Goal. This activity creates low-stakes opportunities for students to make personal decisions, practice communicating preferences, practice listening to others, and ideally take a mini-vacation from their daily life, all while building classroom community.

Instructions. The course instructor projects an image of some type of scene on screen and asks students “if you could be magically transported into this image, where would you be?” Students decide where they want to be and go around the room sharing their location with the class.  For instance, in this waterfall scene, some students will elect to be standing on the rocks beside the waterfall. Others may be swimming in the water (some near where the water comes off the hillside; others closer to the rock with leaves on it). Still other students may be in the woods and trees  above the waterfall. The instructor can invite the students to reflect on why they chose that spot in the image. These conversations help to develop a sense of class cohesion as students join one another at certain locations and say things like, “I just jumped into the water and splashed Rasheed! I love being splashed!”

If weeks later the same image is shown again, students are provided with the opportunity to return to the same spot or move to another one. Some students change places based on a reason given by their classmate in the past. Others elaborate on their story from the previous week, saying something like, “since the last time we saw this image, I dove into the water and swam to the waterfall. I’d love to step through the waterfall and see if there is anything on the other side.”

Considerations. Some students find the prompt of being magically transported into this scene to be implausible and thus they do not want to answer the question.  Asking these students “Where are your eyes drawn to when you look at this picture?” allows them to participate without having to use their imagination if they are not ready to do so.  Instructors can follow up with, “why do you think you are drawn to that part of the image?” It may take some students a few times of doing this activity before they are able to do much more than indicate where they are in the picture.  Putting into words why one has decided to focus on or be in a certain part of the image takes self-reflection skills some students are continuing to develop.

Recreate Yourself as a Superhero

Goal. By imagining themselves as a superhero, students are invited to articulate their current strengths, skills they are hoping to develop, and their future goals. Students must also reflect on what they value most about themselves and what they expect of themselves.

Instruction. Students are instructed to imagine themselves as a superhero. They are given this worksheet to complete as they make decisions about their superhero selves, including their superhero name and characteristics. Students then create a physical representation of their superhero self to share with their classmates.

Considerations. The worksheet provided here was created as a fun way of helping students think through their hopes and dreams for life after college, connecting Other instructors may wish to modify this worksheet to relate specifically to their course goals.

Creative Expression Through Poetry or Collage

Goal. Creative Expression, such as poetry and collage, provides another means by which students can develop self-awareness and communicate about themselves.  Creative expression allows students to explore the question “who am I?” and to articulate their current self-understanding.  These formats allow students who tend to be less articulate in essays, to express themselves more fully.

Instructions. There are a variety of poetry styles. Two styles I have found to be helpful in facilitating self-awareness are the list poem and the bio-poem.

“A list poem can be a list or inventory of items, people, places, or ideas” (Franco, 2005, p. 131). Potential topics for a list poem are endless. For instance, Dr. Joseph Bathanti, 2012-2014 poet laureatte of North Carolina and ASU professor, facilitated a class session in which students wrote a list poem based on the theme “Home.” Students were instructed to make a list of all the things that remind them of home. To help students expand their lists, Dr. Bathanti encouraged them to think about sights, sounds, tastes, smells, emotions, people, or places that reminded them of home.

A bio-poem follows a set structure and can be completed on someone else (e.g. a historical figure) or on oneself. To encourage self-awareness and self-expression, students should write the bio-poem on themselves. This bio-poem template is easy for students to follow as they write their poem.

Creating a personal collage provides another form of self-expression. The mere act of selecting the types of images or words students want to include in their collage provides frequent opportunity to engage in self-appraisal as students flip through the pages of a magazine or scroll through online images trying to find ones that reflect themselves. Collage assignments might relate to the students hopes and dreams, vision for the future, or simply be a visual representation of how they view themselves at this point in time.

Considerations. Students with greater self-awareness tend to have longer list poems easily adding more to their lists when given prompts while students who are newer to reflecting on their lived experiences find the prompts critical to helping them write their shorter, less detailed poems.  To further enhance their self-expression, students can add visual images or photos to personalize their poems. This can be done on poster board or a slide presentation.

Goal-Setting and Weekly Self-Assessment

Goal: Students set their own goals and monitor their progress toward meeting the goals, with feedback from the course instructor and others invested in the students’ success. This assignment is appropriate for classes in which self-determined goal-setting and progress monitoring is desired.

Instruction: At the beginning of the semester, students set four goals: one relates to their future career, one to their academic performance, one to their personal independence, and one involving social engagement. For each of these goals, students then break the goal down into three smaller steps that will together lead them to achieving the overall goal. There are several formats that students can use to express their goals: streamlined all on one page, SMART one goal per page, visual slides and visual table with progress reports. Each week during the semester, students rate the extent to which they have made any progress on their goals. For each of these goals, students are asked to rate themselves according to the following scale:

5-  I reached this goal! I completed ALL steps!

4-  I completed a step of this goal.

3-  I made a lot of progress on one or more steps of this goal.

2-  I made a little progress on one or more steps of this goal.

1-  I did not do anything related to this goal this week.

After rating themselves, they are asked to respond to the question, “why did you rate yourself this way?” An example of a basic rating form is provided here.

Considerations. To reduce students ignoring what the numbers in the rating scale mean, I have found it useful to explicitly teach the rating scale in class and to ask the student’s primary mentor to go over the student’s self-ratings with them on a weekly or every other week basis. While some students will initially give themselves higher ratings than are warranted based on performance, other students will rate themselves as making little to no progress toward their goals when their performance indicates substantial progress. For this reason, students benefit from reviewing their goal progress with a mentor or the course instructor on a regular basis. In the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program, students meet with a mentor weekly to do goal check-ins and meet twice a semester with myself, the mentor, and other program staff to review the student’s self-ratings and our own perceptions of the student’s progress. In these meetings, we can provide the student with feedback on the extent to which the student’s self-assessments  may be over or under reporting their progress. If a student is not making progress, it is important to help the student explore why this is the case and to adjust the goal and steps to reach the goal based on this discussion.

Performance Self-Assessments

Goal. Students rate their own performance and progress with occasional feedback from the instructor, internship supervisor, or other program staff in order to develop the ability to accurately monitor and report on their behavior. This increases the likelihood that students will be able to engage in self-management throughout adulthood.

Instruction. Students in the SDAP seminar course are expected to engage in self-assessments in a variety of ways.  Two ongoing self-assessments of performance will be discussed below.  As these instructional practices are specific to the seminar, I found it necessary to write my personal account of how I use these practices and offer considerations within each description rather than speaking in general about how other instructors might use them.

Logging in-class participation. One way students engage in self-assessment is to log their in-class participation at the end of each class period. On day one of class students are given a participation log listing each class day and requiring them to circle the number on a 10 point scale that best indicates the level of their participation that day with 10 meaning they participated as fully as they could have on that day.

From time to time, I will discuss a student’s participation with the students to confirm that the student and I would judge the student’s participation similarly. Where there are significant discrepancies we are able to talk about this. While sometimes students are reporting a high level of participation when their participation was very low, most of the time when students’ self-assessment varies from mine, students are more likely to rate their participation lower than I am. It helps these students to be given specific examples of the way they participated throughout the class. This provides students with concrete examples of what average or strong participation is.  In this way, my experiences reflect that “individuals differ considerably in their capability and propensity for metacognition, and some learners will need a great deal of explicit instruction and modeling in order to learn how to do this successfully“ (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2013). These participation log check-ins are useful in opening communication with students who tend not to talk in class but are actively listening (where I as a professor may not perceive them as being engaged yet they can talk easily about what they got out of class when I check-in with them) or with students who have off-topic interactions during class yet perceive themselves to be actively participating in class at a high level.

Comparison of self-ratings with internship supervisor ratings. One of the courses I teach has a practical component whereby students gain career-related on-the-job experience. Therefore, mid-term and end-of-term mastery-oriented performance evaluations are completed on each student by their workplace supervisor.  Students also complete mid-term and end-of-term self-ratings of their job performance. It is then possible to provide students with a comparison between their self-rating and their supervisor’s rating. It is important to discuss these ratings with the student, noting places of agreement and disagreement in the ratings, as well as problem-solving areas noted for improvement by either the student or supervisor. As students progress in their academic coursework and career, this type of performance appraisal will be a common occurrence.

Considerations. When students routinely self-assess their performance (as in the logging of class participation), they are developing the skills needed for less frequent performance appraisals (as in the midterm and end-of-term self-ratings).


Self-Awareness is an ongoing process. Our ideas, wants, and needs change across time.  Therefore, the instructional practices discussed above can be used multiple times allowing for increased comfort with self-reflection and self-assessment, leading to increased self-awareness, self-determination, and self-advocacy.

Becoming comfortable engaging in self-reflection and self-assessment takes time. Students tend to be resistant to these contemplative methods when they a) have a concept of college as lectures and tests, b) have been told what to think, do, and feel, c) have had limited opportunity to make meaningful decisions for themselves, or d) experience anxiety about trying new things. Acknowledging and addressing these issues as they arise will increase student comfort.

It is helpful to introduce ideas in one context (i.e. class) and follow-up in another context (individual meeting). This is particularly the case when students need more individualized guidance in developing self-reflection. Doing this will increase transfer and generalizability.

Learn More

The Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP) is a two-year Model Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID).  Students in SDAP earn an Academic Achievement Award upon successful completion of the two-year program.  SDAP operates in large part through a US Department of Education grant which requires that students in the program focus on, “a) academic enrichment, b) socialization; c) independent living skills, including self-advocacy skills; and d) integrated work experiences and career skills that lead to gainful employment” (US Department of Education, 2015). This type of post-secondary education program is becoming more common on university campuses throughout the United States. The seminar course in which some of these instructional practices have been used is designed, in part, to assist students in recognizing their emotions and developing a larger repertoire of self-regulation strategies, recognizing and tending to the needs of their physical body, appropriately communicating about themselves with others, developing the ability to effectively self-advocate and to make purposeful decisions about their lives.  Students in the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program work with additional professional staff, graduate assistant mentors, and undergraduate peer supports who have assisted with goal setting and self-monitoring and with performance appraisals.

References & Resources

Buron, K.D. & Cook, M. (2003). The incredible 5-point scale: Assisting students with autism spectrum disorders in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Franco, B. (2005). Excerpt from conversations with a poet: Inviting poetry into K-12 classrooms.

Richard C. Owen Publishers: Katonah, NY. Retrieved from:

National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2013).  UDL guidelines – version 2.0: Principle III. provide multiple means of engagement. Retrieved from:

Palmer, A. (2006). Realizing the college dream with autism or Aspergers  syndrome: A parent’s guide to student success. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

US Department of Education (2015). Transition and postsecondary programs for students with Intellectual Disabilities. Retrieved from:

About the Author


Rebekah Cummings

Dr. Rebekah Cummings is the Academic and Life Skills Coordinator for the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program and a lecturer in University College at Appalachian State University. She has a Ph.D. in Human Development from Virginia Tech with a graduate certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Dr. Cummings has been teaching at ASU since 2009. She is the primary course instructor for the seminar courses described in this module.