The Importance of Teaching with EmpathyArticle Date | 1 September, 2023
The Importance of Teaching with Empathy
By Mark Cannon, Senior Business Lecturer, LSST Wembley campus
In the realm of higher education, where knowledge is transferred from educators to learners, the concept of empathy holds a significant place. As a Senior Lecturer at LSST, I was recently tasked with delving into the profound connection between empathy and effective teaching. This exploration led me to conduct an in-depth study, combining insights from distinguished external academics with my personal experiences within the classroom:
What is Empathy?
Empathy is a term used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as ‘the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling’.
Based on the research that I have conducted, there are two different types of empathy – affective and cognitive:
Affective empathy refers to sensations and emotional responses to others
Cognitive empathy refers to “perspective taking”.
Value in Education:
In light of the need for our learners to become self-motivated and directed in terms of taking more ownership of their own learning experiences and journeys and for lecturers to primarily deliver the material and facilitate such learning, the significance of fostering an empathic social environment has become extremely important.
Indeed, the focus traditionally has been largely teacher centred and neglects or lacks sufficient appreciation of the social and psychological elements of the learning experiences. As such, for many learners, independent learning, critical thinking and the creation of insightful and deeper and more meaningful experiences for growth are restricted. Moreover, as has been proven, learning has been largely focused in having student merely memorise facts and figure and perform tasks to enable them to ‘pass exams’ and criteria associated with coursework rather than acquiring and developing skills and knowledge that can help them achieve their respective academic and career goals as valuable members of society.
Hence, as a consequence, many students may be able to excel in completing prescribed academic requirements with high marks, however, they are restricted in terms of being able to demonstrate valuable skills and knowledge to help them to be productive in the “outside world”.
Indeed, the rationale is strong for lecturers to deliver learning material and assess learner progress, by demonstrating effective empathy to prepare the students accordingly to not only pass exams and do well in the completion of coursework but also to enable positive, constructive empathy that would both help with formal academic achievement and preparation for being constructive members of society and to help them achieve their respective career goals and objectives.
As highlighted by Zhou (2022) the four main benefits are:
1. To facilitate change and learning
2. To create positive links between what is being taught and how the learners feel or think about what is being taught
3. Enabling the breakdown of complex concepts into component parts in ways that the learners can assimilate and digest easily
4. To demonstrate the practical value of what pieces of information or skills are being taught in preparation for meeting the demands of the “outside world”
All of the above are important to be effective in helping learners to motivate and develop learners to help them to be more aware of their skills and abilities and how what they already have can be mapped with new skills and pieces of information to enable them to excel both inside and outside the classroom.
Indeed, positive social and psychological elements of empathy in the classroom need to be created and maintained when teaching. As a result, levels of motivation, learner empowerment, and development can be enhanced.
Professional strategies demonstrating empathy in the teaching environment
The following are proven strategies to facilitate empathy and inclusiveness in the classroom by Proven strategies employed for facilitating empathy in the classroom by Grabau (2017):
Strategy 1: Give students experiential opportunities for building empathy. Create occasions in which students can develop personal connections with others through hands-on experiences and direct interactions. Also, create opportunities for indirect service by creating projects designed to connect with the outside community. Projects may include creating websites, research reports, or other marketing materials.
Strategy 2: Incorporate empathy into students’ reflection. Include empathy-related questions in student formal or informal reflection activities. Have students take an “empathy self-assessment” at the beginning and end of the semester that prompts students to reflect on their empathic perspective related to the course. Also, consider adding an empathy component to the “What? So What? Now What?” reflection heuristic to help students understand their empathic awareness levels.
Strategy 3: Teach the empathy toolbox. Model behaviours that promote empathic communication. During classroom discussions, practice active listening and other evidence-based strategies to promote inclusive classroom discussions. Finally, consider incorporating “cognitive complexity” as a focal point for class discussions and reflections. Help students see that situations, social issues, and even individuals are complex and often defy simple definitions or explanations.
Strategy 4: Assess and reimagine classroom culture and design. Consider how classroom design influences student engagement. Create small group circles for in-class discussions or a series of circles for larger classes. Sit among students instead of standing in front of them during discussions. Also, bring the “outside-in” to class discussion by incorporating real-world perspectives into classroom discussions. Finally, incorporate learning activities that encourage self-awareness, perspective-taking, and interpersonal engagement.
Strategy 5: Add empathy to your learning objectives and graded coursework. Treat empathy as a valuable component of learning. Include empathy as one of the goals for your course, or include empathic learning as an explicit objective in-class assignments and projects. Show that empathy matters to your profession. Assign informal writing devoted to empathic development or provide additional readings addressing empathy and your academic field.”
Additional resources on effective empathy in facilitating successful teaching can be found in:
“https://scope.bccampus.ca/pluginfile.php/70507/mod_resource/” (S Meyers, K Rowell, M Wells, BC Smith – College Teaching, 2019).
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9201024/ (Zhang, Z., 2022)
In terms of practice, I personally have developed empathy in my teaching, as with most things in life, by a combination of extracting and learning from others and what I have discovered on a trial-and-error basis. As some of my students and former students, I endeavour to demonstrate the 4 values indicated above and have received positive feedback accordingly.
By showing, socially and psychologically an approachable manner of engagement with my learners, combined with introducing and breaking down new and complex concepts in “manageable chunks”, in line with academic criteria, using various real-world” examples from both my own understanding and those of the learners, the learners feel more at ease in their learning experiences with me. As a result, both emotional well-being and associated genuine understanding and demonstration of the required elements of a module are enhanced. As mentioned earlier both affective and cognitive (acquisition) aspects of empathy are conveyed.
For instance, when I have a set of slides with various pieces of information, I alternate between showing the slides on a projector screen and pausing the slide presentation and using the whiteboards to clarify and elaborate on specific points with two-way communication with the learners. Hence, complex concepts are more easily understood both in terms of simple understanding and practical value in real-world scenarios. Such activities are reinforced by various pedagogical techniques linked to formative assessment such as case studies, reflection on own experiences, games, and class lesson flipping. As a result, students from a range of social and cultural backgrounds are given the opportunity to not only learn but also feel themselves as being genuinely valued as integral stakeholders in the learning process. Indeed, both individuals and all the learners as a group feel valued and demonstrate higher tendencies to be active and proactive along their respective learning journeys in the classroom and outside the classroom.
In terms of practical outcomes, a zeal to learn more, and apply what they are learning in ways that are meaningful to them, the attaining of high grades follows accordingly.
With a suitable orientation of empathy among some of my former students, I have been told that students had audio recorded my lectures and arranged dedicated study groups to ensure that they understand what has been taught and come to class ready with a thirst to learn more. When I have run some cover lessons, I try to apply some of the above strategies and tactics and have received very positive feedback. In some cases, through the application of empathy-oriented engagement, I was able to break scenarios where apathy and languor had set in among some learners.
Hence, I can testify that empathy can be a powerful force in facilitating student-centred learning.
Helping students excel
The role of empathy links well with growing need to have student to be self-directed and take charge of their own learning experiences and teachers need to recognise and provide environments in which students feel valued, challenged in a positive way to succeed, and the growth and develop using what is taught and their own often hidden or undeveloped skills and knowledge. As a result, empathy, when demonstrated effectively can be a truly effective asset in an educator’s arsenal of skills and knowledge in the classroom.
Moreover, on closer examination, in addition to the efforts of the teachers/lecturers concerned, the creators of schemes of work linked to assessments, can also embed some of the above strategies and associated tactics within schemes of work to help the teachers with this never-ending challenge of developing motivation, sustaining motivation, and enhancing student achievement both inside and outside the classroom. Indeed, schemes of work embedding more group work, reflection-oriented work, the conducting of research, and the development of critical thinking skills play critical roles alongside the efforts of the teachers/lecturers in facilitating effective empathy and overall learner achievement.
In sum, if done correctly, with a holistic focus, empathy, indeed, can play a critical part in helping students learn and excel in life.
Meyers, S., Rowell, K., Wells, M. and Smith, B.C., (2019). Teacher empathy: A model of empathy for teaching for student success. College Teaching, 67(3), pp.160-168.
Zhang, Z., (2022). Toward the role of teacher empathy in students’ Engagement in English language classes. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, p.880935.
Zhou Dr, Z., (2022). Empathy in Education: A Critical Review. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(3), p.2.
https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition [accessed 29 August 2023]
https://reinertcenter.com/2017/04/12/strategies-to-enhance-empathy-development-in-college-teaching/ [accessed 29 August 2023]