As the Completion by Design colleges consider how to improve teaching and learning on our campuses, there is a rich body of literature on the profession and science of teaching to draw upon. And we all agree that pedagogy is important, but a growing body of evidence indicates that the relationship between the teacher and the learner is also an important variable to consider.
For example, the Gallup-USA Funds Associate Degree Graduates Report (2016) study interviewed 2,548 adults whose highest level of education was an associate degree. The study investigated graduates’ perceptions about their college experiences and how their experiences related to workplace engagement and their overall sense of well-being. Gallup reported that the relationships graduates recall having with their professors are positively related to their long-term success in the workplace and in life. Three items emerged that were strongly correlated with success:
My professors/instructors at UNIVERSITY cared about me as a person. (30% strongly agreed)
I had at least one professor/instructor at UNIVERSITY who made me excited about learning. (56% strongly agreed)
While attending UNIVERSITY, I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams. (20% strongly agreed).
Unfortunately only 13% of the respondents reported that they strongly agreed with all three of the statements. But those 13%, who were emotionally supported by faculty, were more than two times as likely to be highly engaged and satisfied at work and more than three times as likely to be thriving in overall well-being (Gallup, 2016).
The evidence indicates that our relationships with our students are important in promoting their success. But what does this helpful relationship with our students look like? Dr. Kathy Rowell, Professor of Sociology at Sinclair Community College, has been presenting to groups of faculty at conferences on the topic of “teacher empathy.”
She encourages her audiences to reflect on their experiences as students and think about their “best teacher.” What made this person a great teacher? Participants frequently discuss how a teacher cared about them; went the extra mile for them; or encouraged them to pursue their goals. They rarely mention how great the assessments were or how the instructor made sure that they clearly met learning objectives for the course. Dr. Rowell makes the case that, in general, the more students interact with teachers, and the more likely they are to learn and succeed in courses and to return the next term to continue pursuing their educational goals.
But there are a lot of questions to be answered. What does it mean to be an empathetic teacher? Are faculty willing to have “empathetic” relationships with their students? Are there any unintended consequences associated with being an empathetic teacher?
Psychologist Carl Rogers in Freedom to Learn (1969) says that, “a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent factor in bringing about change and learning.” He goes on to assert, “When the teacher has the ability to understand the student’s reaction from the inside, has the sensitive awareness of the process of how education and learning seems to the student….the likelihood of learning is significantly increased.”
Unfortunately, empathy is not a well-defined, or easily measured concept, particularly in the context of faculty, students, and higher education. Segal and her colleagues (2013) discuss affective and cognitive components of empathy. Affective empathy is about feeling for or “mirroring” another’s emotions. This type of emotional empathy occurs automatically at an unconscious physiological level. Cognitive empathy is a conscious thought process and involves the willingness to consider what it would be like to be in the position of another. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, I was taught to engage in cognitive empathy: a deep level of understanding where the clinician took on the perspective of another. What would it be like to “walk in in my client’s shoes?”
Dr. Rowell challenges faculty to consider what it means to be an empathetic teacher? How does an empathetic teacher handle late assignments or deal with the challenge of students who are struggling to grasp the course material? How does an empathetic teacher structure the class and create assessments and course policies? She argues that if we feel sorry for our students and pity them, we might conclude that lowering our standards and making the course “easier” is the answer. But she insists that is not what an empathetic teacher would do. If we empathize and sincerely try to walk that mile in our students’ shoes, we come to the conclusion that lowering our standards is absolutely the last thing that we should do. An empathetic response is to consider what our students need to be successful after they leave us (career or transfer to a 4-year institution). This means that they need to be well-prepared and held to high standards and expectations. But our students also want our help, understanding, and encouragement in reaching their goals.
As we consider how to encourage faculty to development relationships with their students that promote learning and success there are many questions to answer. But we sincerely believe that highly effective professors are more than just expert practitioners of pedagogy. Great teachers also try to relate to, encourage, and empathize with their students.
In June 2016, Completion by Design convened a cross-cadre conference focused on teaching and learning. The conference materials are shared below:
- CBD Agenda: Conference on Teaching and Learning June 28-29, 2016
- Speaker bios
- Hodges Keynote: Lessons from Gallup's Research in Education and Beyond
- The Faculty Perspective
- Best Practices in Building Faculty and Student Engagement
- The Importance of Teacher Empathy in Increasing Student Success
- Teaching for Transfer: Shifting from the How to What
- Advising and Beyond
- Leveraging Instructional Technology for Student Success
- Fast and Furious Workshop Presentations
- Cultural Transformation at the Intersection of Design Principles, Strategic Planning, and Leveraged Serendipity: An Evolutionary Mapping of Faculty Development at Valencia College and survey results