Teaching Empathy In An Online Class

Teaching Empathy In An Online Class
Summary: This article presents empathy as a learnable skill that is the foundation of strong communication, collaboration, leadership, and relationship-building. Learn why designers and educators should embed lessons in empathy in their courses, and how to teach empathy effectively online.

Empathy Development: 10 Ways To Enhance It In An Online Class

In the world of education, we are confronting antiquated concepts of empathy and redefining it as a pre-requisite to mastering the 21st-century skills. While empathy has often been viewed as an attribute of someone’s personality, it is actually a skill; one that can and should be taught.

Daniel Goleman, who coined the term, “Emotional Intelligence,” has identified three types of empathy, and explains how the three together lead to interpersonal maturity. He begins with Cognitive Empathy, which comes from seeking to understand the perspectives of others. The next is Social Empathy, making a connection with the feelings of others or understanding how someone feels. Daniel Goleman says that the last, Empathetic Concern, is the most important. This is the desire to help someone [1]. The three together promote good interpersonal skills by building sensitivity to the feelings of others. Being sensitive goes beyond acceptance and tolerance in that it is an action. In teaching empathy as a skill, we are teaching our students to act sensitively to others, a key component to developing social intelligence.

Students need a strong foundation in practicing empathy development before they can learn effective communication, collaboration, and leadership skills. Virginia Commonwealth University expands on this necessary skill in the published study, Empathy Activators: Teaching Tools for Enhancing Empathy Development in Service-Learning Classes [2].

Today, leaders in education are recognizing the role that empathy plays in mastering skills for the workplace and concepts surrounding empathy are being integrated into standardized curricula.  In many states, the word “perspective” can be found in the standards for all but very few school subjects [3]. In guiding students to look for perspectives, we are setting them on a path to practice empathy.

This thinking has caused a shift in the field of instructional design with more user-centric design processes becoming the standard [4]. As designers begin to focus on building digital environments that are empathetic to the learners, we must also focus on ways to teach our students to be empathetic learners.

Empathy can be taught, even in an online class. As we design new courses, update content, and facilitate current classes, the following guidelines and strategies deserve strong consideration.

1. Model Empathy

Recognize the struggles students face and be kind in all teacher-student interactions.

2. Provide Ample Outlets For Guided Interpersonal Communication Amongst Students

Sharing thoughts and perspectives helps empathy development and can be done in scenarios of synchronous or asynchronous activities. In live chats and forums, focus on interpersonal skills, having students create questions and answer one another. Depending on your LMS, look for ways in which students can collaborate to build a class resource, such as a picture dictionary with course-related terms and provide a means for them to comment one another’s entries.

3. Heavily Incentivize Positive Student-To-Student Interactions

Think about the class incentives and what students do to receive them. Often, learners are awarded for the quality of work, effort, or participation. Whether students receive badges, ratings, or bonus points, give higher priority to the incentives that reward positive student interactions. Modify discussion boards where students discuss the course content to strongly encourage interaction. Provide badges or bonus points when students react genuinely to one another’s posts.

4. Build Self-And-Peer Reflection Into The Assignments

Reflection transforms content into knowledge. As we identify our strengths, we recognize the challenges that others might face. Use questions that guide students in carefully critiquing themselves and their classmates.

5. Design Tasks Using Experiential Learning Techniques

Look for ways to expand the learning environment into the real world. Have them seek out resources in their own communities that relate to concepts taught in class. Create questions that guide them in experiencing what they find by making comparisons, reflecting, and inferring. For example, open a forum in which students find real-world examples of a principle taught in the class but they don’t explain their examples. Instead, they read the examples posted by others and reply to each, saying what they believe the connection is. This can be expanded as needed for a variety of subjects.

6. Plan Projects That Promote A Sense Of Community

Students of the York County School District Virtual High School created bilingual resources for Spanish-speakers visiting the Virginia Living Museum. To build interest in the project, the teacher had students answer questions from a tour that was given in a language the students did not know. In this way, the students became familiar with the emotions that a person might experience when relying on an unfamiliar language [5].

7. A User-Centric Course Helps Build Empathetic Learners

Build tools within the course that express a genuine desire to know more about the students. Create assignments that offer student choice.

8. Survey Learners Frequently, But Not Extensively

Surveys with more than five questions are less likely to be answered. Use a simple and precise survey to gain quick insight into the technical abilities of the learners before a project, then use those findings to help reluctant users who might be getting frustrated.

9. Express Vulnerability

Sincerely, ask students for feedback. Design spaces in the course that ask for honest feedback and use surveys with comment boxes. But most importantly, as educators, ask the students directly how they felt about a project and what struggles they experienced.

10. Turn The Skill Into A Power

Several popular dictionaries also define empathy as a power, the power to imaginatively enter into another person's feelings [6]. We can empower students to motivate one another.

The teaching of empathy development in an online class is a natural step in the evolution of online education. Distance learning has evolved from an exchange of information to the more nuanced spectrum of human interaction. The more we rely on online learning, the more we begin to look for ways to humanize it, to transform it and take it a step further.

In the design field, this is the direction we are headed in order to improve the efficacy of the educational content we create, whether we are designing for corporate training or for the world of education.


[1] The three types of empathy you need to strengthen your relationships 

[2] Empathy Activators: Teaching Tools for Enhancing Empathy Development in Service-Learning Classes

[3] Virginia Standards of Learning

[4] McDonagh D, Thomas J. Rethinking Design Thinking: Empathy Supporting Innovation. AMJ 2010, 3, 8, 458-464. Doi 10.4066/AMJ.2010.391

[5] Virginia Living Museum Bilingual Resources

[6] Collins Concise Dictionary definition of “empathy”