Empathetic Teaching Strategies for the College Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

During the course of my college teaching career, I have become an enthusiastic proponent of empathetic-type classroom assignments and activities. These techniques are an excellent way to engage students in analytical thinking and to create some memorable classroom moments. About two decades ago when I began using empathetic assignments, I had no idea that I was a part of a much larger movement of pedagogical thinking. I was aware that other instructors were using some of the same techniques in their classrooms, but I did not know about the emerging fields of empathetic studies and empathetic teaching. I was not aware that this methodology and this new mode of thinking were gaining popularity. It was not until later in my career that I became aware that empathetic-themed assignments were the subject matter of scientific research trials and many scholarly publications.

Early in my career I was preoccupied with the idea of helping my students understand and enjoy their history assignments. I had discovered that a fair number of my students were just not interested in learning any more about United States history. Students would tell me that they had been sufficiently “tortured” in their high school history classes. Also, another concern I had was the desire to break away from the straight lecturing techniques used by the vast majority of professors. Thus, I embarked on a mission of sorts. I was determined to excite some degree of history interest in my students even among those who claimed they disliked history. I also wanted to incorporate more interesting and fun activities in my classroom.

Searching for a solution, I decided to use empathetic teaching models in my syllabus. These models were role plays that I labeled “getting inside the heads of historical personalities exercises.” I feel very fortunate that I began using this technique early in my teaching career. The technique has created some memorable teaching experiences for me, and, I trust, it has also created memorable learning moments for many of my students. On one occasion, for example, one of my students instantly transformed into a judicial persona when he wore some commencement regalia to role play the main prosecutor and judge of the 1637 trial of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A normally gregarious, fun-loving sophomore became a grim and punishing Governor John Winthrop on that occasion. For that particular assignment, the entire class read and interpreted excerpts from the trial transcript. The students learned about early American gender biases and witnessed an example of religious intolerance.

One of the first empathetic assignments I used for an African American History class required the students to write essays about role playing the career experiences of African Americans living at the beginning of the twentieth century in 1910. The students could select any number of careers of that time period, such as working as a Georgia sharecropper, a teacher in a one-room rural school, a Chicago physician, a Tillotson College senior, a janitor working in a Cleveland factory, or a live-in domestic worker from Mississippi. In addition to writing about their hypothetical lives and careers in 1910, the students were also asked to choose between the philosophies and leadership styles offered by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, or Marcus Garvey. This turned out to be a popular assignment that sparked considerable discussion and debate. Students played their roles well and learned about the time period, the leaders, and the various philosophies of the era.

My goal has always been to use this empathetic technique to provide my students with a method for understanding the ideas, motivations, and activities of the historical personalities we study in class. Such assignments often work to encourage students to think differently about historical personalities and to have a more informed understanding of historical events. Empathetic-themed activities and assignments are also an effective way to encourage students to reflect upon and make comparisons between historical and contemporary events. For example, students can acquire an informed understanding of presidential policy-making over the generations by comparing the arguments made to defend President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act with those arguments used by President Lyndon B. Johnson when he presented the Medicare Act to Congress in 1965 or when President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the Social Security Act during the 1930s.

Beyond individual classrooms like mine, research on empathetic thinking and teaching is blossoming into a broad field of study. Scholars from around the nation are conducting research trials and experiments and publishing their findings in articles and books. Psychologist Sherry L. Hatcher and Jeremy Rifkin, who is an economist and social theorist, are just two of the many emerging experts in this field. Interestingly enough, some of the research suggests that empathy among humankind is on the rise. The research in the fields of child development and evolutionary biology suggests that people are more biologically predisposed to empathetic tendencies as opposed to being more aggressive or narcissistic. Some authors go so far as to see mankind eventually transforming from Homo-Sapiens to Homo-Empathicus. These researchers tell us that empathetic thinking is sure to have an impact in the future, and even today it serves as an indicator of a shifting educational paradigm for our twenty-first century classrooms.1 Other researchers, including Hatcher and her colleagues, are conducting experiments to determine if empathy can be taught. They are especially keen to see if young counselors in training can be shown how to hone their empathetic skills.2

The scholars specializing in the field of empathetic thinking have begun to critique the contribution levels that academics, including historians, have made to this new educational paradigm. Historians have been praised and criticized. For example, in a recent publication, Jeremy Rifkin suggested that human empathy is a key aspect of modern mankind. According to Rifkin, “empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization.” Rifkin took historians to task for emphasizing past social conflict, wars, and evil wrongdoers. On the other hand, Rifkin also praised those historians who celebrate human empathy as a sort of “social glue” that allows diverse groups to unify across broader domains. This glue, according to Rifkin and others, can result in a more cohesive society overall. Researchers tell us that empathetic thinking provides an avenue to understand and connect with others across town and across the globe.3 Increasingly, individuals are realizing the benefits of empathetic thinking. A recent Austin American-Statesman newspaper article reported that a charitable foundation had donated one million dollars to enhance “social emotional learning or SEL” in the public school systems in Texas. Dr. Meria Carstarphen, the Superintendent of the Austin Independent School System, explained that “SEL will help bring that balance in the skills of what it means to have relationships with people.”4

We history professors use various classroom methods and activities to evoke student empathy, critical thinking, and analysis. Although, President George Washington’s threat to hang Pennsylvania grain farmers who protested the Whiskey Tax in 1794 may seem too heavy-handed for modern sensibilities regarding executive power, a role play exercise that transports students back to the mind set of Washington’s cabinet can render a different result. Empathetic reasoning gives us a more balanced understanding of Washington’s legitimate constitutional concerns as well as the farmers’ passionate protest for economic equity and citizenship rights. From my reading and research in the field of empathetic strategies, I join others in the opinion that through the use of role playing exercises in conjunction with the reading and interpretation of primary documents, we can effectively enhance student learning and transform our history classrooms.

Primary source materials are often the ideal tools for empathetic classroom assignments. By acting out the actual scenarios of the March 1770 Boston Massacre as recalled by the eye witnesses/participants, students can get an up-close and personal understanding of the series of events on that important night in our nation’s early history.

I ask my students to participate in the equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking—second guessing various historical actors. Most semesters, my students will work on a class assignment that requires them to re-examine the traditional thinking about our Founding Fathers and their motivations for going to war with England. The class makes a determination about whether or not the American Revolutionary War was really necessary. By rating the severity of the various Parliamentary Acts that England imposed on the colonies, the class decides if negotiation was one viable alternative for the Founding Fathers in 1776. For another history exercise, I sometimes ask students to select and discuss one key event occurring during the tumultuous decade of the 1850s that above all other events would have compelled them to enlist in either the Union Army or the Confederate Army at the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Similarly, empathetic questions work well in essay-type examinations. Students are asked to select the ideal English North American colony for their “cousin” to settle. Based on the cousin’s profile presented in the essay question, the student must examine the characteristics of a particular colony (let’s say Maryland or New York) and determine if it would benefit his or her relative. These are all positive outcomes for using empathetic assignments. They show students an alternative way to look at historical events and historical actors. Students gain a clearer understanding of why the historical actors thought and behaved as they did.

The researchers in this emerging field of empathetic thinking tell us there are even grander, more widespread outcomes and rewards for our engagement with empathetic thinking. One scholar equated empathizing with civilizing. He suggested that with a heightened empathetic sentiment, our increasingly individualized population can begin to affiliate with one another in a more interdependent and integrated manner. The end result is that our societies benefit and also the individual benefits. According to Rifkin, when person A empathizes with person B, the experience is an affirmation of person A’s existence and a celebration of his or her life.5 Who would have imagined that a classroom role playing exercise about George Washington or the Boston Massacre would allow us to reap such great rewards?


1The title of Jeremy Rifkin’s article is “Empathic Civilization Excerpt: Homo-Empaticus, the Big Story That Historians Missed” www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/04/empatic-civilization-exc_n_448475.html 11/16/2013.

2See “Sherry L. Hatcher et. Al, “The teaching of empathy for high school and college students: testing Rogerian methods with the interpersonal reactivity index, www.thefreelibrary.com/The+teaching+of+empathy+for+high+school+and+college­+students%3A+testing…-a016477259 11/9/2013.i

3Rifkin, “Empathic Civilization Excerpt”

4“$1M donation aims to boost ‘social emotional learning’”Austin American-Statesman, December 2, 2013, B2.

5Rifkin, “Empathic Civilization Excerpt”

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