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Supporting Online Students: Why Teaching with Empathy Matters

An online instructor teaching with empathy on their laptop.

Empathetic teaching has always been important, but its importance in the online environment cannot be understated. The care and concern shown by instructors for their students does not go unnoticed. Students appreciate when instructors show concern for what is happening in their lives; having an instructor with a teaching approach that focuses on empathy helps them navigate through anxiety or uncertainty.

For most online instructors, time is not a luxury they have. The rush is on to participate in discussion boards, respond to emails, grade student work, post announcements and make sure their course is running as smoothly as possible. This hectic pace happens week after week throughout the course. When something negative happens, it is quite easy for the instructor to assign blame to a student’s behavior without thinking about why the behavior may have occurred. Instead of looking at what is going on in the student’s life, an instructor may only look at how the behavior is impacting them.

Negative behaviors may include a student posting a demeaning response on a discussion board, turning in work late, frequently emailing with questions or questioning the instructor's grading. Instructors may look at such instances as more work on their plate and as not being respectful of their expertise or time.

Student Support and Taking Time for Empathy

When a student seems to be struggling, this is where an instructor’s empathy for what is happening with the student can enter the equation. Having empathy towards the student can help the instructor change the dynamic around. Amanda Morin mentions that the instructor is not only acknowledging and considering their own feelings about the situation but also what they do not see – what is behind the student’s behavior? It may be a simple difference in thinking or learning, or it could be a much deeper issue.  

Communication and having an open mind are important. It is impossible to be empathetic if the instructor does not know what is going on in the student’s life. Having the ability to address issues such as a demeaning post, late work or numerous emails with endless questions without being confrontational is key. An instructor can address these issues by letting the student know that their behavior is causing them to wonder if there is more going on with the student than “meets the eye.” An instructor acknowledging the behavior is not condoning the behavior; rather, the instructor is noting that it is concerning and that there may or may not be consequences for the behavior.

Asking the student why they posted a demeaning response to a fellow student’s post or why they are consistently handing in work late may reveal there is much more going on with the student. It is important for instructors to remember that empathy is a way of connecting with students to show an understanding of what they are experiencing, even though the instructor may not understand exactly how it feels for them. Kendra Cherry writes that empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view and imagine yourself in their place.

If a student writes a demeaning post because he/she was angry about breaking up with a significant other, it is more understandable as to why it happened. In this situation, the instructor can be there emotionally for the student without condoning the behavior. The instructor might point the conversation towards the target of the post and ask, “How do you think it made the other student feel?” It can be a learning experience for the student to not take their anger out on others. The same is true with the student that submits late work. If the instructor takes the time to find out more about what is going on in the student’s life, the instructor may find out that the student is working 60 -70 hours a week and has two young children they need to care for.

When an instructor takes the time to ask, they can sometimes find that student behaviors are a result of what is happening in a student’s life and are not directed at the instructor. Empathy allows the instructor to realize that the student is going through a very difficult time and they need support, not condemnation. It takes a change in mindset to understand that it is about the student and not about them as an instructor.

Why the Willingness to Care Matters

Displaying empathy may not be something all college instructors are willing to do. Showing empathy may actually seem risky to some – not because they are opposed to it, but it may not come naturally to them. In fact, some instructors may have alexithymia. Jayne Leonard, a psychotherapist, states that people with alexithymia have difficulties identifying feelings and emotions in themselves; difficulties recognizing and responding to emotions in others, including tone of voice and facial expressions; poor coping skills when dealing with stress; and appear distant, rigid, and humorless. The instructor that struggles with their own emotions and the emotions of others may see their role as being a purveyor of information and knowledge and not as being emotionally or psychologically available to their students.

Matthew Wright, an assistant professor of physics at Adelphi University, argues it can be tough to teach from the position of not being emotionally or psychologically available to students. He believes in order for instructors to be successful, they must go beyond just teaching the material in a course. Instructors need to be leaders, mentors and guides as they teach a course. Instructors must care deeply about their students and show it. Displaying empathy is one of the best ways for an instructor to show they care.

According to Wright, the stress and difficulties of many students, high achieving or not, is very real. Life for students can be extremely demanding and trying to be successful as students only compounds the stress they may feel, especially if they are struggling. They may become despondent and start to pull away from their studies. Elisabeth Pain, a contributing editor for Science Magazine, argues that many graduate students have or are at risk of some sort of psychiatric disorder. Many students feel they are trying to solve things themselves and can become overwhelmed. Pain also believes that colleges and universities can be part of the solution through student support of mental health issues, and it starts with instructors. Instructors need not be counselors, therapists or life coaches, but they can act as sounding boards. Often students just want to have someone listen, understand where they are coming from, and also understand what is happening in their lives that is creating problems for them.

Student Support Boosts Student Persistence

It may help if instructors realize that the priorities of adult learners may be different from their own. While an instructor may feel their course should be a priority in a student’s life, in reality, it may be far less important to the student. Students dealing with sick children, working 60 hours a week, struggling financially, being in a bad relationship, having elderly parents in need of health care, etc. may have their own set of priorities in handling those issues. As a result, schoolwork may be far down on the list.

Students that are stressed out need supportive instructors to help guide them along. This can only happen if the instructor is open to helping the student in any way they can. It may be uncomfortable, but it can be the difference between a student being successful and continuing their studies at Southern New Hampshire University or wherever they study, or succumbing to the stress that life is throwing at them and dropping out altogether.

Dr. Thomas MacCarty is an associate dean of social sciences at Southern New Hampshire University. He can be found on LinkedIn.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.