Sep 23 • 5 min read

This is part two of a six-part series on using empathy in the classroom. 

Every year, Joan Allatta, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Strategic Management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, coordinates the school’s undergraduate capstone course. More than 1,500 students enroll in the course, which is traditionally taken during their final year, often during their final semester.

For Allatta, it’s one of the last opportunities to leave a strong impression on students before they graduate and begin their careers. She hopes to impart an understanding of empathy, which Allatta and her peers believe has immense value in the 21st century business world. 

“For me, a big part of empathy is being able to walk in another person’s shoes.  It’s important to experience what it’s like to be CEO or top manager confronting a tough decision.  So we try to get students to engage as if they were the decision-maker or as if they were another stakeholder who would be impacted by that decision. If students can leave here with that connection, they’re far more prepared for future business success,” Allatta says.

But engaging students in empathy during an undergraduate capstone course is easier said than done. For starters, students are often more focused on their upcoming graduation than their final class requirements. They’re also often balancing their coursework with the pursuit of finding full-time positions.

That’s why Allatta uses activities that help engage students in the practice of empathy. She wastes no time, either. The first thing she does is start a paper fight.

“Within the first five minutes of the first class, this is an exercise that really helps shake things up, and it also gives them a preview of what they’re going to do and learn in the course,” Allatta says. 

In the activity, a small team of students from each side of the room is given paper. One side receives a lot of paper while the other receives a little. Then, as the name implies, they use that paper for a fight. 

“Without really realizing it, as they do this, they develop strategy, they implement strategy and they see the impact of differences in resources and endowments of resources,” Allatta says. “We also do three rounds of the fight, so students get to see how strategy evolves and is innovated over time.”

The students with less paper are forced to be more resourceful. It helps illustrate how small organizations face different challenges and must find different solutions than an organization with much greater resources.

Another activity that is a highlight of Allatta’s course is the icebreaker questions. Each day that a new topic is introduced, it’s done so via these icebreaker questions. They help students consider different perspectives with something that is familiar.

So, for instance, when she introduces the topic of diversification, she asks how Kingsford Charcoal started.

“The answer to that question is Ford Motor Co.,” Allatta says. “A question like that also really helps stimulate interest in the topic, and students start to think why is 1+1 greater than two? Automobiles and charcoal are very, very different, so why are these two companies better together than they would be apart?  Students are able to put themselves into the minds of the Ford executives who saw that diversification into charcoal was a savvy business decision. It helps them think more broadly.”

The final activity that Allatta uses in the course focuses on Tinker Toys. The students are placed into teams, with each team having 15 minutes to plan the construction of a Tinker Toy tower. Each team will then, one-by-one in sequential order, have 45 seconds to build a tower. The team order is chosen at random and all groups are able to watch their peers construct their towers.

“What you generally find is that the later teams tend to have the taller towers. They’re learning from the earlier teams and their experiences,” Allatta says. “Those experiences and the failures and successes of the other teams are then guiding the later teams.”

The activities that Allatta uses were done in a pre-COVID world, but she also believes the lessons can be applied to a virtual world, too.  

“Not all activities can be brought straight into the online setting so you need to be flexible,” she says. “Be willing to adapt the topics and the approach, but don’t lose the engagement because engagement is where students connect with the topics, where the spark occurs.”

While there is no perfect formula for engaging students to gain empathy, Allatta does offer these five tips to consider when planning activities or lessons focused on engagement and empathy.

Reflections on engagement and empathy

  1. Create or choose activities that help students tie content to important points, issues or concepts impacting business and people today.  
  2. Adapt the classroom activities as needed to the concept, the culture of your class or your style. 
  3. Be willing to experiment.
  4. Help students feel safe to engage.
  5. Focus on the debrief. Tie the activity to what is to be learned, so students can clearly understand the lesson to be learned.

For more information, view Allatta’s Powerpoint and Zoom video presentations on empathy and engagement as presented in the 2020 Academy of Management Annual Conference.

This series is sponsored by the Fox School’s Translational Research Center (TRC), Fox Management Consulting (FMC), Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), Department of Strategic Management and Fox Experiential Education; Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT), and Flinders University’s New Venture Institute (NVI).

Center for Innovation in Teaching and LearningCenter for the Advancement of TeachingCOVID-19Department of Strategic ManagementDiversityEducational InnovationEmpathyEmpathy and EngagementEmpathy in the ClassroomFox Experiential EducationFox Management ConsultingJoan AllattaOnline EducationStrategic ManagementStrategic PlanTranslational Research CenterUndergraduateZoom