Oct 22 • 3 min read

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

Higher education as an industry is changing rapidly, even more so than we could have anticipated before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Let’s set ourselves apart by embracing empathy as the future of education. 

As educators, we can practice empathy in our virtual classrooms by keeping the challenges our students are facing at the forefront of our minds. If their Zoom videos are off or if they are chatting in questions instead of asking aloud, we should not assume the worst—that they’re not paying attention or they aren’t fully engaged. Instead, we should try to empathize. 

Ask about what is preoccupying them. Really listen to their responses. We might be surprised, we might discover a learning opportunity, and we’ll definitely gain insight into who they are and how their experiences affect their learning. 

Our behavior as educational leaders is one way to practice empathy. But as we’ve discussed over the past several weeks, the practice of empathy promises brings more to the classroom than an improved teacher-student relationship. It adds real value to the student learning experience by increasing engagement, sparking imagination, motivating exploration and helping to integrate ideas into practice.

Inspired by the knowledge that empathy can increase student engagement with concepts, improve research imagination and analytic creativity, master difficult topics and develop solutions-based thinking, my colleagues and I have shared examples of activities that we have found to be successful in our experience with students at all levels from undergraduates to executives.

So now what? 

For those convinced of empathy’s benefits but unsure of where to start, I offer this advice: Start small. Begin with a simple class activity that asks students to put themselves in another’s shoes. Paint a picture that helps them feel deeply connected to another human’s situation. Ask questions about their passions to tailor the context to their own interests. Then step back and watch how the learning unfolds. What insights or comments surface that are not usually raised? What reactions do the students have? Do they internalize the information more? 

To those unconvinced that empathy is an essential ingredient in the classroom, I ask: Why not try? Imagine how facilitating empathy might change the material being taught or the student’s experience. I have no doubt that the current approach works well and fits your skills and preferences. But perhaps there is a topic that students consistently struggle in understanding or a concept that needs some imagination to fully realize? Is there an opportunity for fun or for deeper listening?

The world we live in today is, in a word, challenging. People’s lives have been upended in ways never imagined at this time last year. Beset by unprecedented situations, constant change and ongoing stress, we suggest that the practice of empathy is more important now than ever before. Empathy unlocks our ability to work supportively together to imagine and engage with constructive solutions to the challenges we all face.

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.

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