Career advice: should universities award credit for compassion?

Studies from industry and academia show there are significant benefits to incentivising supportive behaviour, says Theo Gilbert

September 21, 2017
Woman holding man's hand providing support/kindness
Source: iStock

Five years ago, Google began a quest to find the defining characteristic of the perfect team.

Was it the ambition, competitiveness or experience of team members that led the group to success? Or did qualifications, a great leader or the blending of different personal attributes push teams towards greatness, asked the search engine giant’s researchers.

The $5 million (£3.8 million) initiative – code-named Project Aristotle – analysed 50 years of academic literature on team building and examined 180 clusters within Google’s 55,000-strong workforce. What it found was something extraordinary. The crucial feature of successful teams was kindness: members of the outstanding teams were vigilant in taking care of each other, and those groups were the most innovative, productive and happy.

So what is higher education doing to rethink group-work assessment and catch up? How are lecturers and departments encouraging a set of skills that is not only desired by top employers but shown by research to encourage critical thinking and cognitive development? In short, universities are a long way behind industry; higher education needs to focus serious attention on the work that neuroscience, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines have been generating on the concept of compassion and its use.

Helpfully, these disciplines agree on a definition of compassion, which is “noticing distress or disadvantaging of self or others, and committing to reduce it”. Unlike the impotence of sympathy, compassion is irrefutably practical, helpful and easily utilised by higher education.

Using this definition as a starting point, universities could focus on incorporating the characteristic into group work in class and reward students for their use of compassionate action in groups. This might include disrupting the behaviours of monopolisers and non-contributors, or pushing fellow students to challenge their own thinking in specifically compassionate ways. Initially, such interventions might seem difficult to promote, but these are the micro-skills, often non-verbal, that can assist great teaching and are more appreciated than ever in the labour market.

I’ve found that they take an hour or so to teach at the start of a module, and they pay off instantly as groups of learners begin to gel together as a group on any task in hand. Once the compassion skills toolbox for group work is placed on the shelf like a free gift, students reach out for it. Questions such as “What am I doing to develop the learning and social experiences of my fellow students?” or “What are my fellow students doing to develop my learning and social experiences in our seminars?” are great ways to spur active consideration of how compassion works to promote social and group intelligence. Setting up a “speed dating” system for students before they do anything else in the first tutorial of a module can also help to encourage the idea of peer learning, which can be useful to improving compassion in seminars.

Demonstrable and observable use of the micro-skills of compassion in group work is now credit-bearing towards degrees in three University of Hertfordshire schools. Feedback from our seminars and, so far, 44 interviews and focus groups with students, staff and external examiners extol the practice, but what about the benefits for institutions? Statisticians carrying out blind studies at Hertfordshire, as well as at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Veterinary College, have come back with the same results about its effectiveness. For instance, on the modules that embedded compassionate micro-skills, there was no statistically significant attainment gap in academic performance between ethnic minority and white students in the group work; across the UK sector and at the individual institution analysed, the attainment gap is currently about 18 per cent.

Martina Doolan, a computer scientist at Hertfordshire, has most recently co-researched the outcomes of hosting this compassion-focused pedagogy on a computer science module of 220 students, which was compared with a control group on the same module. The compassion-focused approach made remarkable inroads on closing the ethnicity attainment gap, while student feedback across the module was good. These skills can benefit students and educators alike.

As undergraduates return to university, many might be feeling homesick and alienated from campus life. Rooting compassion into the curriculum is one way to promote students’ social connectivity among multicultural and highly international cohorts and ease these difficulties. It can also turbocharge the creative and critical thinking potential of our students.

Theo Gilbert is an academic skills lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Academic English.

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Print headline: That’s such a kindness – would you credit it?

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