Using empathy in the classroom can have a great impact on learning

Instructors can take many small steps to make their classrooms a more enjoyable and positive space for students


24 May 2022
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Empathy is an important quality for tutors to practice in the classroom

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Technologico de Monterrey

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Pastoral care for students in the digital classroom
Providing pastoral care for students in the digital classroom

Our shared purpose as educators is, of course, to provide comprehensive and quality education. To achieve this, we must always consider the human side of students, and putting cognitive empathy into practice in addition to the intellectual aspects of teaching can yield excellent results.

But how can you work on cognitive empathy and generate a positive impact on students? Here, we share reflections based on our experiences that we hope will be useful in your daily practice.

Make students feel welcome and accepted 

Displaying an empathetic attitude helps create a good environment at the beginning of the course, allowing students to feel welcome and accepted in the group. Something as simple as expressing to students in the first class your appreciation of the fact that they are there can have a surprisingly large impact. You could also welcome them in writing, or via a video in an online course, but be sure to use words that convey friendliness, warmth and joy at having them as students. If creating a video, make sure that non-verbal cues (gestures, tone of voice, posture) are consistent with the verbal message you’re sending.

You should also give yourself time to listen to your students and learn about their lives, expectations of the course and what they hope to achieve professionally and personally. Listening must be attentive but never judgemental, which helps students feel accepted and respected while building trust. This can even start with a “How are you?” said truthfully. In addition, you can use technological tools (Padlet, forums or institutional messaging) to maintain open communication during the course and thus prevent feelings of loneliness. Another simple but effective way to reinforce feelings of closeness with students is to remember their birthdays and invite the group to share in congratulations.

Motivate students to learn 

As teachers, it’s essential to understand the motivation that leads students to the classroom each day. What do they find stimulating in class? How can you make interactions more attractive so they learn with pleasure? In terms of empathy, we suggest looking for and using classroom methods and innovative technological tools (Along, Mentimeter, Pixton, Jamboard are a good start) that allow you to channel students’ emotions and interests, which should help make learning attractive and meaningful to students.

Designing your class using active learning is one good approach. This strategy places the student as the starting point and encourages the tutor to consider their interests and what excites them and create a dialogue from their experience and knowledge to generate meaningful learning. In a course project, you should encourage students to choose situations close to them (from work, their community, a business that interests them, etc) to strengthen their critical thinking and collaborative development, thus giving meaning to what they learn. You should also remember the importance of supporting the process through trigger questions, giving them the time to reflect and consolidate their knowledge.

Help students learn from mistakes 

Empathy allows for understanding students’ mistakes as learning opportunities, stemming from a reflective attitude of questioning and growth, and accepting mistakes as part of a process of improvement, which implies that we can generate positive learning in the face of mistakes.

For example, you could integrate activities such as written or oral exams and practice exercises, where the student can make mistakes without fear of a penalty and then review their mistakes, counting on the teacher’s valuable feedback. This represents an excellent opportunity to increase dialogue and trust while strengthening your students’ learning.

Encourage dialogue in the resolution of differences and conflicts 

We consider education to be, in part, an activity of dialogue and interaction between two or more people. On the other, this can mean that differences and even conflict can arise in the diversity of thoughts, ideas or points of view. Empathetic conversation helps reduce tensions so that creative solutions can emerge, allowing participants to express themselves with courtesy, listen carefully and settle differences respectfully.

At the beginning of the course, it’s good practice to generate a set of conversation rules to help maintain empathetic, healthy and constructive dialogue. It can be created via student participation but should agree on basic rules of coexistence and sanctions for non-compliance, thus creating shared responsibility for every member of the group. If the course is running online, you might want to lay out the document ahead of time and then share it so that students can read it and give their opinion and comments.

Mariano Garay Peña and Beatriz Murillo Pancardo are instructional designers in design and pedagogical architecture at Monterrey Institute of Technology, Mexico.

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