Elizabeth Coyle '19 

Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
Major: Psychology (Counseling)
Senior Study Title: “Creating Together: Exploring the Connection Between Group Mindfulness Programs and Stress Reduction in College Students”
 Dr. Lori Schmied

Thesis Abstract

Before beginning as a student at Maryville College, Elizabeth Coyle ‘19 knew she was interested in art therapy, which utilizes various creative techniques to help with emotional expression.

“I’ve always had an interest in the connections between art and mental health,” Coyle said.

As a psychology major with a focus in counseling, Coyle wanted to pursue the topic of art therapy in her Senior Study, “Creating Together: Exploring the Connection Between Group Mindfulness Programs and Stress Reduction in College Students.”

“My Senior Study focused on how visual art-based mindfulness programs could help reduce stress in undergraduate college students,” Coyle said.

One of the distinctive features of a Maryville College education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is supervised by a faculty member. Students choose a research topic informed by their major and often one that is closely related to their career choice.

For her study, Coyle hosted several programs within Maryville College residence halls. During each program, students did free-form mandala drawings for about 30 minutes. Surveys were issued to each student before and after drawing that addressed their mindfulness skills and perceived loneliness.

Dr. Lori Schmied, professor of psychology, coordinator of neurosciences and Coyle’s advisor, said that she had never had a student approach the topic of loneliness in this way before.

“I was intrigued by her idea of using mindfulness through an art activity as a way of tackling loneliness in a community-building setting,” said Schmied. “I’ve had Senior Study students study aspects of each of those variables singly but never in combination.”

Based on her preliminary research, Coyle hypothesized that underclassmen, specifically freshmen, would see the highest initial stress and loneliness scores. However, according to the surveys she administered, that was not the case. Instead, she found that the juniors in her sample had the highest stress levels and lowest mood. On the other hand, freshman did see the greatest decrease in stress and increase in mood post-activity.

For Coyle, the most rewarding part of her study was the feedback she received from students who participated in her program.

“I got feedback from a lot of people that they felt better [afterwards] and that they were glad they decided to stop in and do the program,” Coyle said.

As for challenges, she said the location of her study posed the greatest challenge. Hosting the programs in residence halls made it difficult to control for variables like the atmosphere, the type of people and the number of people that participated.

Despite any challenges, Coyle’s study impressed her advisor and other faculty so much that it was recognized as an Exemplary Senior Study and added to the College library’s permanent collection.

“There were several factors that made Elizabeth’s Senior Study stand out to me,” Schmied said. “Her literature review was not only thorough; she was able to synthesize information regarding different components that, at first glance, might not seem related: community psychology, mindfulness, loneliness and art. Her design was well thought out, and she was able to discuss her results at a level of sophistication rarely seen at the undergraduate level.”

Coyle graduated in December 2019 and is beginning a position at an inpatient mental health center that predominantly serves K-12 aged children. She plans to apply for graduate school in fall 2020 and ultimately become a counseling psychologist specializing in adolescents and young adults. She plans to utilize her experience with mindfulness as an emotional outlet in her future career.

Schmied believes that Coyle’s Senior Study research helped her develop the skills and knowledge she’ll need to pursue these goals.

“While Elizabeth aspires to be a counseling psychologist and practitioner, the research skills and knowledge she acquired from conducting her study showed her how research findings inform practice,” Schmied said. “Another invaluable lesson is that research – like counseling – doesn’t always go by the plan, and one has to adapt to changing circumstances.”

Coyle agrees, adding that her Senior Study allowed her "to put research in action and see firsthand how mindfulness can help people in that age group, and it was also a chance to really practice the skills I’ll need for grad school.

“The Senior Study process overall was a really great experience,” Coyle continued. “Even though it may seem overwhelming or daunting as an underclassman, it’s something that’s super valuable.”

Story by Evy Linkous ’16