Strategies to Enhance Empathy Development in College Teaching

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The ability to practice empathy has become a popular topic lately.  As an important component for inclusive teaching and a crucial interpersonal skill necessary for a the 21st Century job market (Markham, 2016; National Research Council, 2013), empathy is often defined as a combination of behaviors that include affective perceptions, cognitive processes, and effective communication practices.  In short, empathic persons can practice and prioritize a very basic human need; the need to be understood (Rogers, 1957).

Empathic individuals exhibit many behaviors including an ability to accurately perceive feelings and attentively listen without judgement (Wiseman, 1996).  Empathy is considered a crucial component to the development of emotional intelligence and has been attributed to greater academic and career success (Anders, 2013; Goleman, 2006; Jones, et al., 2014).

Although there are a number of effective evidence-based teaching strategies to help develop empathy behaviors in K-12 education, a growing body of research on empathy development in university teaching is starting to emerge.  In 2016, Everhart, et al., published a white paper identifying five strategies for integrating empathy into the university service-learning experience.  Although their report is not an exhaustive list of the available techniques to increase empathy in university student learning, their universal teaching strategies may help inspire opportunities for empathy development within any discipline.  Their strategies include:

Strategy 1: Give students experiential opportunities for building empathy.  Create occasions in which students can develop personal connections with others through hands-on experiences and direct interactions.  Also, create opportunities for indirect service by creating projects designed to connect with the outside community.  Projects may include creating websites, research reports, or other marketing materials.

Strategy 2: Incorporate empathy into students’ reflection.  Include empathy-related questions into students’ formal or informal reflection activities.  Have students take an “empathy self-assessment” at the beginning and ending of the semester that prompt students to reflect on their empathic perspective related to the course.  Also, consider adding an empathy component to the “What? So What? Now What?” reflection heuristic to help students reflect on their empathic awareness.

Strategy 3: Teach the empathy toolbox.  Model behaviors that promote empathic communication.   During classroom discussions, practice active listening and other evidence-based strategies to promote inclusive classroom discussions.  Finally, consider incorporating “cognitive complexity” as a focal point for class discussions and reflections.  Help students see that situations, social issues, and even individuals are complex and often defy simple definitions or explanations.

Strategy 4: Assess and reimagine classroom culture and design.  Consider how classroom design influences student engagement.  Create small group circles for in-class discussions or a series of circles for larger classes.  Sit among students instead of standing in front of them during discussions.  Also, bring the “outside-in” to class discussion by incorporating real world perspectives into classroom discussions.   Finally, incorporate learning activities that encourage self-awareness, perspective-taking, and interpersonal engagement.

Strategy 5: Add empathy to your learning objectives and graded coursework.  Treat empathy as a valuable component to learning.  Include empathy as one of the goals for your course, or include empathic learning as an explicit objective in class assignments and projects.  Show that empathy matters to your profession.  Assign informal writing devoted to empathic development or provide additional readings addressing empathy and your academic field.

If you would like to discuss how to incorporate empathy development into your teaching, please complete our online form to request a consultation or call us at (314) 977-3944.


Anders, G. (2013). The Number One Job Skill in 2020. Retrieved 11 April 2017, from

Everhart, R., Elliott, K., Pelco, L. E., Westin, D., Briones, R., & Peron, E. (2016). Empathy activators: Teaching tools for enhancing empathy development in service-learning classes.

Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence. Bantam.

Jones, S. M., Weissbourd, R., Bouffard, S., & Kahn, J., & Ross, T. (2014). How to build empathy and strengthen your school community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Markham, T. (2016). Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21st Century Learning. MindShift. Retrieved 11 April 2017, from

National Research Council. (2013). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. National Academies Press.

Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 21-103.

Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of advanced nursing, 23(6), 1162-1167.

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