By: Brian C. Smith, Ph.D., Graceland University and Sal Meyers, Ph.D., Simpson College
We approach our work as teachers with the goal of improving student learning, both in our courses and – we hope – throughout the rest of our students’ lives. As psychologists, we know much about learning, including both strategies most likely to enhance learning (e.g., testing effect, distributed practice) as well as those less useful strategies most often used by students (e.g., highlighting; re-reading; Dunlosky et al., 2013). In this post, we shift our focus to the social aspect of learning. We argue that teacher empathy improves the quality of student-teacher interaction and leads to better learning.
We’ve previously defined teacher empathy as “the degree to which instructors work to deeply understand students’ personal and social situations, feel caring and concern in response to students’ positive and negative emotions, and communicate their understanding and caring to students through their behavior” (Meyers et al., 2019, p. 161). In understanding students’ social situations, we explicitly urge consideration of factors including race, gender, and socioeconomic status.
The cognitive understanding component of empathy might be viewed in part as a willingness to suspend negative attributions for students’ undesirable behaviors – or even lack of behavior. If a student misses class or doesn’t turn in a major assignment, pause before assuming that the student doesn’t care or is lazy. In order to afford college, students may spend 20 or more hours a week at a job. Students may juggle family responsibilities. They may experience fear of failure; it’s easier to not write a paper and believe that they could do it than to turn in a terrible paper that will evidence that they can’t do it. Students are subject to stereotype threat, or they may feel that they don’t belong (impostor syndrome, anyone?). In short, before making a negative dispositional attribution, listen to the student. For an example of changing attributions in a K-12 setting, see the experiment with 8th grade math teachers by Okonofua et al., (2016). Students whose math teachers practiced empathy (i.e. thought about non-pejorative reasons why students misbehaved, read positive student stories like “the teacher really listened to me”, and reflected on their practice) were only half as likely to be suspended from school as those whose teachers were in a control group.
Our understanding of students’ social and individual circumstances should contribute to an emotional response, which isn’t necessarily the same as the student’s. As our face-to-face courses became online courses, many students’ anxiety levels spiked. We felt and acknowledged that anxiety. Empathy also suggests that we show joy when students “get” a concept, or they mention something good happening in their lives.
We demonstrate our empathy through behaviors. What we do – whether one-on-one or with an entire class – communicates empathy. So too do our policies. Which raises the question – how do we demonstrate empathy?
Empathy can be communicated in the syllabus. When we randomly assigned college students to read syllabus excerpts, we found three things led students to perceive the instructor as more empathetic (Smith & Meyers, 2019):
Building in flexibility and second chances. You might provide students with a set number of virtual tokens that can be exchanged for the chance to revise an unsatisfactory paper or excuse an absence from class. You might give a cumulative final exam and, if the final exam grade is higher than a midterm exam grade, replace the lowest midterm exam grade with the final exam grade.
Providing a student-focused rationale for the policy. This lets students know that you understand their situation and considered it when creating your policy.
Using first-person. Sometimes instructors have very little flexibility with regard to policy (e.g. an accommodation statement). But even here, students perceive greater empathy when policies are preceded by the instructor’s point of view (e.g., “I strongly support the accommodation policy”).
What can you do to communicate empathy if you don’t have control over the syllabus?
Take the time to get to know your students by surveying them about who they are and what they bring to the class.
Use mail merge to send personalized email messages to students asking how they are, how much progress they have made on a large assignment, and whether they have any questions about course content.
Let students know that you do not expect them to already have all the skills they need to be successful in the course. Then provide resources so students can learn better study skills, stress management (e.g., meditation), support seeking, and self-control.
When working with an individual student, asking questions and active listening work well. We recommend reviewing and incorporating motivational interviewing strategies (Miller & Rollnick, 2012; North, 2017).
In short, we suggest that we as teachers invest the time and energy to know our students, to interact and to create policies in ways that demonstrate our understanding, and to acknowledge learners’ emotions. Please note that we do not lower our course standards. Instead, we keep the focus on students’ learning; we strive to act in ways that heighten the odds that students reach our learning goals. We suggest that empathy and other relationship-focused topics are especially important as students and faculty live with the continued uncertainty linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58.
Meyers, S.A., Rowell, K., Wells, M. & Smith, B.C. (2019) Teacher empathy: A model of empathy for teaching for student success. College Teaching, 67:3, 160–168, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2019.1579699
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.
North, R. A. (2017). Motivational interviewing for school counselors. Independently published through amazon.com.
Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. 2016. Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in Half among Adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (19): 5221–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1523698113.
Smith, B.C. & Meyers, S.A. (2019, February). It’s in the syllabus: Policies’ effects on student perceptions of teacher empathy. Poster presented at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Portland, OR. https://osf.io/v86ng/
Dr. Brian C. Smith is Professor of Psychology at Graceland University, where he heads new faculty orientation and supports professional development. Dr. Sal Meyers is Professor of Psychology at Simpson College, where she served 12 years as the first director of faculty development. Sal and Brian frequently offer sessions at Lilly Conferences on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.