In the wake of the current health crisis, a majority of educational institutions were forced to turn to online options to continue teaching their courses. In a rush, many have been forced to opt for hyper-simplified solutions, which are not representative of the possibilities offered by online training these days. This technological and pedagogical modality has, in fact, evolved in such a way that it is no longer just a medium for transmitting content, but a unique environment that can optimize learning.

One of its advances is the integration of approaches that aim to give it a more human dimension and to “reduce the distance” between the actors involved. Among its approaches, the pedagogy of empathy is one that can be implemented even in simplified elearning solutions. Here is what this approach is all about!

Empathy in two dimensions

For most of us, empathy evokes the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to try to understand what the other is going through. This important component of interpersonal relationships is sometimes confused with sympathy, compassion or altruism, but it can also be related to these concepts. Under the magnifying glass of psychology or philosophy, in particular, this seemingly simple notion can become eminently complex. We will focus in this article on a definition that is meaningful and applicable in a pedagogical context.

Empathy consists of two dimensions, one emotional and the other cognitive. The first refers to the ability to feel the emotional state of the other. “It is a natural sensitivity to what the other person feels, to his or her emotional experience,” explains psychologist and professor Mario Poirier in his article Réduire la distance par la pédagogie de l’empathie (Reducing distance through the pedagogy of empathy)(2013), specifying that this emotional dimension of empathy can also be described as “sympathy”. As for the second dimension of empathy, it refers to an understanding of the thoughts and aspirations of the other. “Through a certain cognitive analysis of our perceptions that allows us to predict the behaviour of the other person, we can decode a lot of information, not only what the other person is telling us, but also according to our own understanding of the context that is communicated to us,” explains Poirier. An analysis that, he adds, helps us better understand how we feel and manage our sympathetic reactions. The term “mature empathy” is sometimes used to refer to the combination of the two aspects of the concept that makes it possible to both feel and understand the other person’s emotion.

An empathic pedagogy has been shown to benefit feelings of trust, enjoyment of study, motivation and engagement in learning, the development and strengthening of a bond between teacher and learners, the creation of a positive learning environment, the development of a sense of belonging to the group, the valuing of learning, and educational success.

Teaching tool

It has been demonstrated that teaching can benefit from increased empathy in the pedagogical relationship (Poirier, 2013; Cooper, 2011; Gribble & Oliver, 1973; Washburn 2008). More specifically, an empathic pedagogy has been shown to benefit feelings of trust, enjoyment of study, motivation and engagement in learning, the development and strengthening of a bond between teacher and learners, the creation of a positive learning environment, the development of a sense of belonging to the group, the valuing of learning, and educational success (Poirier, 2013; Fuller, 2012; Fuller, 2012; Holmberg, 1995, 1999, 2003).

In order to use empathy as a pedagogical tool, it is imperative that the teacher be interested in the cognitive dimension of this notion, which is, in fact, the dimension on which he or she can intervene. “This cognitive capacity of empathy is particularly important for the development of teaching skills because it allows the implementation and management of a concrete practice of empathy,” explains Mireille Hamel, consultant in pedagogical engineering in distance education, in her article entitled La pédagogie de l’empathie et son impact sur les apprentissages en ligne (The pedagogy of empathy and its impact on online learning) published in the book Formation et apprentissage en ligne (2019).

It is this component of empathy that makes it possible to make it more than an affective disposition and to translate it into actions to modulate one’s pedagogical approach, as Hamel points out: “Given this cognitive component of empathy, we can adjust our actions and interventions in online education according to the specific needs of each situation.” Using empathy as a pedagogical tool therefore requires not only listening and being willing to put oneself in the learner’s shoes but also engaging in a process of reflection followed by action.

The Online Teacher: Empathetic Guide

In elearning, when a course is ready to be offered to learners, the role of the teacher is often no longer as much of a content provider as that of a guide and resource person. This reality, coupled with the need to do everything possible to “reduce the distance” inherent in this type of training, makes it essential to optimize the human and communicational dimension between the teacher and learners. As such, the practice of empathy seems to be the ideal solution.

It is important to know that this approach should not be reserved for particular or delicate situations – for example, a learner who is struggling with personal or even learning difficulties – but should permeate teaching practice as a whole, including the bond that the teacher weaves with his or her learners in his or her work as a pedagogue. Mario Poirier explains: “A good pedagogue is capable of a real individualized bond with the other, even when what he wants to communicate is purely intellectual. A student is generally sensitive to the interest a teacher shows in him or her and the openness he or she perceives in the possibility of communicating with him or her. Every student, from elementary school onwards, can remember teachers whose ability to transmit a difficult subject in a personalized way is something that he or she can remember.” Poirier describes the empathetic teacher as a teacher who not only “takes an interest in his students, who sees them as distinct and complex individuals,” but also “mobilizes them and facilitates their attachment to what he teaches (connected learning).”

According to psychologist and professor Mario Poirier, this link between teacher and learner is one of the most important contributions of empathy in pedagogy, and this benefit becomes even more valuable in online training.

Although the challenge is greater in distance education, because “the link with the student is less obvious than in face-to-face teaching,” as Poirier admits, “nevertheless, distance or not, it is possible to adapt any teaching to take in consideration the pedagogy of empathy. This link between teacher and learner is, according to Poirier, one of the most important contributions of empathy in pedagogy. This benefit is even more valuable in online education, where the absence of a link or the “failure” of the link to the other is likely to cause a feeling of loneliness, which is one of the main causes of dropping out (Glikman, 2002, p.42; Dupont, 2010; Dussarps, 2015).

According to Professor Richard G. Fuller (2012), since the opportunities for spontaneous interaction are multiplied in the current context of online training, it is all the more necessary for teachers to adopt an empathic approach to ensure that learners’ expectations are clear and their learning is meaningful. “The fundamental principle for effective online teaching is for instructors to derive a realistic understanding of learners’ needs and their expectations of the online program while adapting the instruction to the learners’ level of skill and perspective,” he argues in his article, Building Empathy in Online Courses: Effective Practical Approaches.

The impact of empathy extends beyond strengthening the one-to-one teacher-learner relationship, as it has been shown to foster a positive learning environment and play a role in the pedagogical success and valuing learning (Fuller & Morris, 2012). With the opportunities for interaction it offers its participants, elearning also benefits from using empathy to foster a collaborative spirit and develop a culture of collaboration. “The empathy practice tool is thus a basic element in the dynamic construction of a collaborative culture. However, communication acts must be intentional and initiated by the teacher,” explains Mireille Hamel in her article, specifying that “the practice of collaborative empathy allows to instil a sense of trust, motivation and belonging to the group”.

Moreover, the benefits of empathy are felt not only by those who receive it but also by the person who initiates it. Psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli argues in his book The Stress Solution: How Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy reduces Anxiety and increases Resilience (2016) that an empathic approach not only reduces stress but also provides a clearer perception of reality and is less prone to prejudice by preserving emotional states that can lead to cognitive distortion (see The 3 Speeds of Thought, Cognitive Bias: When Our Brain Plays Tricks on Us, Cognitive Biases in Education: the Pygmalion Effect and 3 Cognitive Biases to Know in Education).

Empathetic, from listening to action

To be effective as a pedagogical tool, empathy must be deployed through listening and reflection, but also through action. For Ciaramicoli (2016), this form of listening that allows us to put ourselves in the place of others is necessarily “slow and reflective”. Fuller (2012), for his part, invites the use of active listening, also known as “reflective” listening, which would promote empathy by helping to develop trust and respect, encourage the emergence of information, create an environment conducive to problem-solving and, when necessary, reduce interpersonal tensions and allow the parties to release their emotions (Salem, 2003). It should be remembered that active listening is a technique that consists first of listening to and understanding what the other person says, thinks and feels, and then reformulating their feelings, thoughts or opinions in our own words to ensure that we have understood their message. “The learner who feels listened to will be able to make known his or her difficulties, ask for clarifications and make suggestions for improvement,” emphasizes Mireille Hamel.

Intimately linked to listening, a reflective process is necessary for the pedagogy of empathy, and the conditions specific to online training can work in its favour. “Elearning, especially in an asynchronous mode, provides a favourable environment for building a reflective approach because it allows the time and distance needed to formulate an empathic response adapted to the situation,” explains Hamel, recalling that the reflective approach in training is an approach that leads the learner to become the object of his or her own reflection in order to make decisions about current and future actions (Callero 2003; Etherington, 2007).

For empathy to be truly effective, it must be embodied in action, and several initiatives have been identified to guide the teacher in this regard.

Finally, for empathy to be truly effective, it must be embodied in action (Ciaramicoli, 2016), and several initiatives have been identified to guide the teacher in this regard. First, there is the issue of online presence, which must be regular, but also of “quality” (see Does a Sense of Community Matter in Online Education). “Presence is the instructor being visible and active in a course which does play a role in promoting empathy. Empathetic practice, however, goes deeper and is the ability for the instructor to understand online student’s needs being constantly aware of how they are receiving and processing information,” explains Fuller (2012). Some of the concrete initiatives Poirier puts forward to integrate empathy into his teaching include:

  • Conducting numerous checks on each student’s progress during the course.
  • Focusing on frequent, ongoing exchanges centred on one problem at a time.
  • Give quick and clear feedback on exams and graded work. Feedback must be detailed and personalized. Its objective must be to explain errors to the student, BUT also to motivate the student to work harder, to improve and to succeed in the course.

Since we know the importance of body language in communication and that it allows us to decode information that cannot be decoded otherwise, it is recommended to use video conferencing regularly or at least at key moments in the training. Indeed, real-time, face-to-face online conversation that allows us to see body language, but also to hear the tone of voice and inflexion of the interlocutor helps to ensure an empathetic presence in online training (Waterman, Snively & Spalla, 2016).

Whether interactions take place via videoconferencing, audio or even writing, one of the keys to reducing distance and giving empathy the best chance to flourish lies in the tone of the conversation initiated by the teacher. For Swedish professor Börje Holmberg, who developed a theory of empathic communication, it is essential that in distance education, the teacher addresses the learners directly and adopts a conversational tone (Holmberg, 1995, 1999, 2003). Holmberg advocates this conversational style not only for synchronous exchanges but also for all written and recorded educational material intended for the distant learner. Mario Poirier, for his part, prefers to use the term “pedagogical conversation” to describe this exchange in which the teacher’s mission is to bridge the gap between the pedagogical content and the learner. It is by listening to the learner – his or her “interests, abilities, fears, etc.” – that the teacher can find a personalized way to address him or her to build confidence and motivation.

Referring to her experience in online teaching where her students represent a great cultural diversity, Mireille Hamel explains in her article what she gets out of the pedagogical conversation in such a context: “The variety of their backgrounds is such that the task of aiming for the right cultural approach is Herculean. Not only are the cultural characteristics of my students unfamiliar or very unfamiliar to me, but each student is also distinct and unique. It is from the dynamic pedagogical conversation that I draw clues to understand the needs, perspectives and expectations of the students so that I can enrich, present, or adapt the content in a meaningful way.” In order for students to not only feel confident but also to express themselves in an authentic and collaborative way, it is imperative, she says, to adopt an emphatic tone.

Can you be against virtue?

We might ask ourselves whether empathy is not already integrated into most current pedagogical approaches; whether this practice does not run counter to the autonomy provided by online training, which many learners enjoy; or whether its generosity and benevolence might not encourage certain abuses. The answer to these legitimate questions is that there are undoubtedly more advantages than disadvantages to teaching that considers this fundamental relational human dimension and whose benefits are becoming better and better known. While learner-centred pedagogy is in vogue and the teacher is increasingly becoming a guide rather than a content transmitter – particularly in online training – approaches that aim to strengthen the quality of the link and interactions between the teacher and the learners must be seriously considered. Moreover, there is nothing like the fact that a pedagogical practice of empathy exists in proper form to remind teachers that this notion is one of the tools available to them.

And since it is in the DNA of this approach to listen and adapt to the needs of learners, it does not exclude the possibility of leaving more “autonomy” to those who wish to do so. The most important thing remains to ensure that learners who can benefit from a more tangible relationship with the teacher, more personalized support or a stronger sense of belonging are in a context that offers them these.

In online training, this practice seems all the more relevant since it is essential to reduce distance, prevent feelings of isolation and strengthen the link between teacher and learners. In addition, it can bring benefits to learning in general, which are just as valid, if not more so, for the distance learner: increased feelings of confidence, pleasure in studying, motivation, commitment, etc. Finally, since it does not require technologies that are out of reach, this approach is widely accessible, requiring first and foremost a willingness to offer a more humane education.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.