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Author: Tiffany Snyder and Brad Garner

While higher education has traditionally focused on the teaching side of learning, it is increasingly looking at the student side and what barriers interfere with learning. In particular, there is a lot of focus on how poverty, shelter and food insecurity, racism, social marginalization, and other factors undermine learning and what higher education can do to counteract these influences.

One topic that has emerged from this discussion is how instructor empathy can improve learning. There is a tendency to perceive empathy as a soft and permissive way of interacting with students. Empathy, however, is not about extending assignment deadlines each time a student shares a personal hardship. Empathy is not about lowering academic standards for students.

Empathy is about understanding another’s situation and demonstrating that understanding to the other person (RSA, 2013). It does not mean agreeing with the other person’s position or acquiescing to the other person’s demand. In education, empathy is about listening, observing, and entering difficult places alongside students. This can be particularly important for students who come from backgrounds that are more remote to the culture of higher education than other students.

For example, perhaps you notice that a typically engaged student is abruptly absent from an online course. A simple message asking, “How are you doing?” may be enough to invite a conversation about a sudden personal, family, or technological need. If and when the student shares an update, you then have an opportunity to show empathy in your response, acknowledging the student’s distress. Upon listening and acknowledging the student’s struggle, you can negotiate a way forward with them (RSA, 2013).

Methods for demonstrating empathy toward students online

There are a number of methods for you to demonstrate empathy to students:

Higher education is increasingly focused on how it can level the playing field for those students whose situations hamper their ability to perform as well as other students. Empathy is a key to serving these students. A few simple steps to demonstrate empathy toward students can greatly influence student performance.


RSA. (2013, December 13). Brené Brown on empathy [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

Tiffany Snyder, PhD, is the director of faculty enrichment and Brad Garner, PhD, the digital learning scholar in residence at Indiana Wesleyan University–National & Global. They cohost the Digital2Learn Podcast.