This semester has been a tough one for my students. We had illness, car accidents, senior capstone stress, and the typical spring fever–all of which brought a great deal of anxiety into my already-difficult class. As their teacher, I know I’m supposed to maintain a certain amount of rigor in the content and assessment of the course, but I also believe in empathy for their experience. I care for the mental and emotional well-being of a student who has to pile three final exams into one day or a student who is under extra-curricular pressure of any sort. Interested in the topic, I’ve begun to research ways to support my students more holistically in their learning endeavors.

Psychologists will define two types of empathy that can be used in the classroom, affective empathy and cognitive empathy, as defined here:

  • Affective empathy is the typical use of “empathy” as an ability to empathize with others’ feelings.
  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to empathize with others’ thought processes and perspectives.

Empathy for both the emotional and the mental aspects of learning can benefit the classroom. According to Edutopia’s post, Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care?, an empathetic instructor can have a positive impact on the classroom culture and community. Student perceptions of how much teachers care may also be correlated with strong student learning and better end-of-term evaluations for instructors. Not everyone agrees that empathy is a benefit, however. Some authors have indicated that empathy makes us less capable of making good decisions or more likely to coddle students right out of a good education. Although I can see both sides of this debate, my personal experience is that if I inject a balance of both empathy and strong boundaries, my students are more likely to trust that I have their learning interests in mind.

Here are the ways I try to inject empathy into my own classroom. I:

  • gather first-month, midterm, and last-month feedback from my students to reroute anything that’s not working.
  • (by student request) build my assessments through small quizzes to help them study in smaller spurts before a bigger exam.
  • pay attention to when students tell me they didn’t come to class because they were sick, and I follow up the next time I see them with my concern about their health.
  • bring chocolate to exams (this one comes from a mentor of mine who swears there is a brain-chocolate connection).
  • allow late work up until the third week of class as they are getting used to the drumbeat of the coursework, and then I let them know that I no longer accept it and why (boundaries).
  • make time for them to work together to discuss with each other the difficulties they’re having with the material.
  • give extra credit for work related to topics taught in my course (which gives them a better sense of control over their grade than when they are testing).
  • allow students to retake portions of tests that were low.
  • give students digital practice tests that give them instant feedback on their strengths and weaknesses.
  • poll students in class (I use Poll Everywhere) in order to more effectively teach to their weaknesses and questions.

There are myriad other ways to inject empathy into the classroom. Some individuals may critique some of these practices, but so far I think they’re working for the benefit of my students’ learning experiences, especially as I’ve watched it lower what applied linguists call the “Affective Filter,” or the negative emotions and anxieties that impede learning.