The Value of Empathy in Academia: Why You Should Care

March 3, 2021

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, I taught remotely for the first time. Before the start of the term, I surveyed my students to get a sense of what challenges they anticipated with the new instruction format. At the end of the term, I invited students to submit anonymous feedback with the goal of improving the course. 

Despite the numerous positive comments, one negative comment stood out the most. It came from a student who felt I was not sensitive enough to their new learning and living situation and that I was not invested in their learning. As I reflected on this comment, I started to wonder about the role of empathy in academic settings and if it is valued and prioritized in these settings.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the feelings of another person. From an evolutionary perspective, studies suggest that empathy is likely common among mammalian species that are social and rely on cooperation from other individuals. Primatologists believe that empathy has evolved from more ancient cooperative strategies, like care for offspring and “social antennae” to detect danger.

In humans, empathy develops at a very young age and is shaped by our lived experiences. Closely tied to empathy is the concept of perspective-taking. This is the cognitive process of seeing a situation from someone else’s point of view. Empathy and perspective-taking may work together to generate a particular empathetic response, such as altruistic helping or consolation.

Benefits of Empathy

From improvisational theater to the corporate sector, empathy is prioritized as a way to improve an end-product, whether it’s a more responsive and genuine performance or a functioning team with shared goals. Responding empathetically to situations offers a number of benefits:
  • Validation: An empathetic response or approach to a situation requires recognizing and understanding the emotional states of others. Phrases like “I understand what you’re feeling” are validating others' emotions and experiences. When a person is distressed, this has positive effects on their emotional state.
  • Builds Rapport: An empathetic response will build rapport among individuals. It provides an opportunity for individuals to feel heard and understood. Building rapport can develop “working alliances” and strengthens interpersonal relationships, ultimately improving collaboration. 

Fostering and Communicating Empathy

As instructors and mentors in the sciences, it is our responsibility to respond empathetically to the needs of students and trainees. The processes of learning and discovery are not individual ventures, rather they are driven by communities within academia. To ignore the importance of empathy in these settings is a disservice to the academy.

I find myself thinking of my former student’s comment, that they did not feel heard and that their unique situation was not validated, and the steps I could have taken to communicate that I viewed their learning as a priority. These are some of the suggestions I came up with:

In virtual learning environments, we need to use language that very clearly communicates our investment in students. It is even more difficult to assess students’ emotional states during a virtual class because we miss their visual cues and body language, and that can affect the empathetic response.

Remote learning also limits the opportunity for building rapport with students. In the past, I could walk around the lab classroom while students worked on an experiment and engage everyone in conversation. A possible strategy to overcome this is to incorporate instructor experiences in lessons. A microbiology professor was at one point an undergraduate student with their own lived experience. A professor sharing a story about struggling with a particular concept would validate the experiences of students in similar situations.

Lastly, the ability to perspective-take can benefit how instructors and mentors communicate information. In my experience with mentoring undergraduate students in the lab, being able to put myself in their shoes has helped to shape the relationship. It becomes collaborative, rather than prescriptive. Students feel like their input is valued and are consequently motivated to continue their work. 

Can empathy improve success in the sciences? It’s likely a very complicated story, but the resulting kindness of an empathetic response costs nothing.

Author: Jesús Peña

Jesús Peña
Jesús Peña is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where he studies the evolutionary developmental biology of fungi.