Empathy in Online Education

Credit: iStock.com/Roman Didkivskyi
Credit: iStock.com/Roman Didkivskyi

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:

  • Connect with students early in the course to identify similarities and differences in their course expectations. These early connections could include an email or video introduction that assures students that you will be present in the course and accessible for further conversation.
  • Break the ice with an introduction that expands beyond your credentials to include parts of your personal and professional experience.
  • Make a commitment to yourself and your students that you will respond to any email or text within 24 hours.
  • Invite students to introduce themselves (e.g., an “introduction forum”). Quite often, online students feel disconnected from their classmates. These introductory videos help to reduce the psychological distance that is often common in online education.
  • Learn students’ preferred names and use them regularly during conversations and in the provision of feedback.
  • Create discussion questions that do not merely ask students to repeat what the course content says. Those are for assignments. Ask questions that allow students to apply prior knowledge and experiences to topics and situations related to the course content. Thus, students do not feel the need to be an expert in the field to engage in the discussion or fear being wrong in front of their peers.
  • Teach and model perspective taking. In our current culture, it is critically important to listen and appreciate how others perceive a question or topic. In online discussions, for example, it is important to both affirm student reflections and challenge student thinking by sharing opposing viewpoints and less popular ideas.
  • Promote and enforce academic rigor with sensitivity and tact. When a student is late to submit an assignment, engages in plagiarism, or submits a less than adequate product, this creates an excellent opportunity for dialogue. You can talk with students about how to resolve the situation and set action steps for improved performance.
  • Respect student privacy and maintain confidentiality.
  • Set boundaries. Determine disclosure or nondisclosure according to what best serves the student. For example, sharing your professional experiences and even your hobbies in an instructor welcome message is safe, warm, and inviting for instructor-student relationships. But sharing personal opinions on sensitive topics (e.g., politics) may threaten instructor-student relationships and ultimately student learning.

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.

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