In the Innovations blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Kahlenberg asked: “In higher education, should colleges affirmatively seek to teach students empathy or is doing so inappropriate because it is unrelated to academic achievement and might be overtly political?” His question responds to a study by a team of social psychologists that suggests that empathy among college students is declining. The two aspects of empathy that the study identifies as exhibiting the greatest decline are “perspective taking” or “the ability to imagine others’ point of view,” and “empathic concern” or the “tendency to feel and respond to others’ emotions.”
I teach in the Religious Studies department and in the Divinity School at Yale, and so I am often faced with questions about how students’ desire and ability to understand one another’s diverse religious experiences impacts their learning. However, I think that the importance of empathy extends to any discipline, given that diversity in terms of economics, race, gender and ethnicity impacts learning in any classroom (note the recent press about gender bias and success in the sciences at Yale). In this post, I’d like to briefly review some strategies for cultivating empathic practices as a teacher and in one’s students.
One of the big reasons that empathy and education is a hot topic is because empathy is understood as a learned habit, something that can develop through training and practice. Sara Konrath, one of the authors of the study about declining empathy, links the practice of empathy with better learning outcomes:
“Besides the obvious social benefits, research also links empathy in students with better academic outcomes. Just as empathetic doctors and therapists have patients with better outcomes, empathetic instructors get better results from their students, even on objective measures such as multiple-choice tests.”
Two of the techniques that Konrath suggests using in the classroom to develop empathy are role-playing exercises and exposure to highly empathic role models.
I’d like to highlight three strategies that feature prominently in the YTC teaching workshops that might already implicitly serve as tools to teach empathy, or could be utilized as empathic teaching tools.
Two of these tools relate to the critical first week of the semester: the policy sheet and the student survey.
First, the policy sheet (or syllabus).
The policy sheet is meant to communicate basic information about the section, frame how the section fits into the class, and set the tone for section. The analogue for the policy sheet if you are a professor and not a TF is the syllabus. Both policy sheet and syllabus are key opportunities to communicate expectations for classroom dynamics in addition to standards for things like handing in work on time or grading rubrics. For example, you might articulate standards for discussion that foster more empathic interaction. Such as:
- Emphasize listening as a core skill in achieving disciplinary excellence.
- Define what counts as respectful, open and safe dialogue. For example, it starts with something as simple as learning the names of your classmates. It might also mean interpreting others’ arguments as charitably as possible.
- Practice asking clarifying and follow-up questions in response to others, rather than jumping to offer your own opinion or solution.
You might also consider offering a brief written rationale for why these behavioral standards matter for student learning. This rationale itself is a way of asking students to practice empathy by considering their role in impacting their classmates’ learning.
Second, the student survey.
Before or on the first day of class, or section, it is a good idea to survey your students about their prior experience with the subject, their expectations for discussion, and their reasons for enrolling in the class. This information can help you craft activities and navigate different learning preferences. A way that this tool can be utilized to cultivate awareness about the importance of empathy in the classroom is to use it to introduce students to the challenges of accommodating diverse intellectual histories, learning preferences, and motivations for taking the course.
For example, if half the class loves small-group work and the other half loathes it, how often should you assign activities that put them in small groups? Offer this conflicting data to the class and express your understanding of both preferences; follow this up with an acknowledgement of the challenge that this presents for you as the discussion facilitator and tell the students that you will attempt to make this a good learning experience for all of them but that their patience and understanding are part of the equation. In this moment, you are explicitly asking the students to practice empathy by seeing themselves and their classmates as both learners and co-teachers, and considering how they might better appreciate the learning preferences of other students.
Third, the mid-semester review.
Typically, the mid-semester evaluation gauges your effectiveness as a teacher thus far in the term. It is a short, anonymous survey of students’ assessment of various exercises and strategies that you have used in class.
As a way of teaching empathy, include the opportunity for self-reflection in the mid-semester review. This can be as simple as one or two questions about the students’ work habits and interpersonal interchanges in the class. The ability to identify their own work habits and responses to classmates can help them better understand the experiences of others. Questions might include:
- What percentage of the time have you completed the reading?
- Has your understanding of a problem/concept/reading ever been improved by input from a fellow student? When?
- Do you feel that your views or suggestions are valued during discussion?
The point of these sorts of questions does not have to be an accurate measurement of students’ feelings – it is, rather, to build into the class an opportunity for them to reflect on the types of empathic communication that promote cooperation and improve learning, and to identify modes of communication that instead foster conflict and isolation. If it turns out that there is consistency in student answers – positively or negatively – it is also instructive for you as the teacher in determining what empathic learning strategies might be working, or falling short.
An important component of this process is following up after the reviews are submitted. Here, you as the teacher have a great opportunity to demonstrate practicing empathy in the classroom by summarizing, paraphrasing and expressing appreciation for student responses, and telling them how you will respond to their concerns in concrete ways during the rest of the semester. This is a moment for the teacher to model understanding of the students’ experience and engage with them in discussion about what might be the deeper concerns that students have about learning. If time permits, you could also ask the students to give suggestions for how the learning environment could be improved through better communication practices.
It is also important to articulate for students what empathic habits they are already doing well: if you notice that students are interpreting one another charitably, asking good follow-up questions, or demonstrating appreciation for another person’s preferred learning style, name these habits out loud. This practice can take place after the mid-semester review, but you can also do it at the end of any class; it takes less than a minute to do. The more you point out the sorts of specific empathic practices that foster learning, the better chance you have of fostering these habits in students.
It must be noted: defining empathy is not a straightforward task – for example, there are questions about whether it is primarily cognitive or affective, how it might be distinguished from sympathy, and the differences in studying it whether one is a psychologist, neuroscientist, or ethicist. Here, empathy has been understood as the disposition that enables one to put her- or himself in another’s place, or to be able to understand and share the feelings of another person. In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate that it is helpful for teachers to view empathy as a practice, as a way to emphasize it as a skill that can be developed (in oneself and in students), and not merely to see it as an emotion that some people naturally possess more than others. Because it is a practice, teachers can develop concrete strategies to employ in the classroom to increase learning outcomes by fostering empathy. We’d love to hear about some strategies that you have tried related to empathy and education.
 “Should We Teach Empathy in College?” August 9, 2011, http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/should-we-teach-empathy-in-college/30044
 Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O'Brien and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, published online August 5, 2010, http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/eob/files/konrathetal2011.pdf
 Paul Anderson and Sara Konrath, “Why Should We Care?—What to Do About Declining Student Empathy” July 31, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Should-We-Care-What/128420/
 See: http://news.yale.edu/2012/09/24/scientists-not-immune-gender-bias-yale-study-shows and http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/10/22/yale-scientists-probe-gender-gap/