Empathy in Instruction

Empathy in Instruction

Over the years, I have been quite vocal in my opposition to high stakes testing as a means to assess learning. The example I always gave was this:

“What if a student’s mom died the night before the big test? How do you think they would do? Does this mean they haven’t learned anything?”

Last Saturday, my mom passed away, completing the last stage of her dementia, and my mind went back to my above argument.

As instructors, it should be our jobs to encourage, to instill a love of learning and to understand and empathize with our students. I’ve encountered many instructors over the years who did not, and never saw it as their role to do so both as a student and as a colleague. While it’s true that students do need to put forth effort and invest time and energy in their studies, this doesn’t mean it should be without merit; they should WANT to invest time and engage because it seems worth it to them. What I’m talking about is motivation. Education should not be about jumping through hoops when the only point we see is an expensive piece of paper at the end.

I encountered an instructor a few years ago who said (and I may be paraphrasing) “It’s not my job to motivate students. They should do the work assigned to them and they’ll pass. If they don’t, they’ll fail”. I remember accidentally shaking my head right in front of this person. Alright, it wasn’t an accident, but I won’t ever regret that automatic response. Learning activities should be engaging, interesting, hell, am I allowed to say the word “fun”? When classes are set up this way, students will benefit from it, and they will be more motivated to invest their time and energy.

Students are people too. They are usually people who have a lot more on their plate than we assume they do. While most instructors are in a phase of life where things have slowed down, including owning a house, having kids, having a routine, many of our students are not in that stable place. Having an understanding of this fact would make anyone a better instructor. To include a mechanism for ‘reasonable accommodation’ within a course is the greatest thing you can build in.

Just in case a student misses class due to illness, misses two weeks of class because of losing a loved one, they should be given the opportunity to continue their education. So many times I hear instructors say “if a student misses even two of my classes, then they’ll be lost and will fail the course”. My immediate reaction is to think that these people are the most inflexible people on the planet. I shake my head again at how unimaginative they are and jump to wondering what their classes must be like <shudder>.

Here are a few suggestions when being flexible with your students:

  • Keep in touch with them if you can
  • You don’t need details about their life. Most students who lie are scared because they’re not being treated like adults or haven’t been treated that way in the past
  • Structure your courses with the possibility for deviation and flexibility
  • Take advantage of technology. Record your classes, provide lecture notes or videos so that students can catch up or pre-learn
  • Allow your student to engage with the course and students even if they aren’t able to come to class.

Technology affords us the most amazing thing in teaching, to be flexible, so allow for empathy.

I just started work on a doctorate this last week. I’m studying from the Pacific Northwestern United States at a school near Sydney, Australia.

I registered for two on-campus courses. I asked the instructors “Is this ok? Can you accommodate me?” “Sure”, the said. “We’ll record the lectures and we’ll skype you in when you need to participate and present”. And this is how I am motivated to learn, because my instructors help me.

I’ve been involved with this ‘Uni’ for many years, having worked there and studied there before, so this is the example that was set for me, and I don’t think this model is an unreasonable one.

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