Cognitive Empathy in the Classroom (CTL Report #4)

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

I attended the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) workshop titled Cognitive Empathy in the Classroom on October 14th, 2020. The description for this workshop is below:

“Adversity outside the classroom has always seeped into the classroom via multiple pathways. However, in today’s environment, it is impossible to ignore how life challenges instructors’ ability to educate and students’ ability to learn. In this workshop, Dr. Jeanette Bennett leads a 60 min virtual workshop on what is and how to incorporate use of cognitive empathy to strengthen the learning environment of the classroom, whether traditional, 100% online, or somewhere in between. The workshop includes multi-methods: short lectures, group discussions, and other activities. Please join us for an active session where everyone will (hopefully) learn something new.”

The presenter, Dr. Bennett, is an experimental health psychologist (I remembered taking one of her psychology courses in the past), studying how stress behaviorally and physiologically alters human function. We began the workshop by taking a survey to discover our own cognitive and affective scores, then seeing how we compared to others in the workshop.

My scores from the survey 🙂

We were given a poll to see how we compared. Most of us (67%) had a cognitive empathy score of over 60, with the rest being between 40-60. For our affective empathy scores, 17% were in the 21-30 range, 50% between 31-40, and 33% greater than 40. It was interesting to see, and Dr. Bennett commented on how those in academia usually had higher scores based on what she had seen from her polls throughout various workshops. She also noted that, typically, academia and higher education support empathy and developing those skills.

Next, we discussed “why ‘human-ness’ matters”.

Today’s students are no longer the “typical college students” one may imagine. There are many different types of students facing many different types of challenges. Based off the statistics given in the workshop: 40% work full time, 57% live independently, 13% live on campus, and 36% don’t even know where their next meal may be coming from (such a larger number than I’d expect). 53% of students’ families live at or below the poverty level. Of today’s students: 37% are 25 years or older, 42% are students of color, 46% are first-generation college students, and 24% have children or other dependents.

There is a lot going on in everyone’s lives.

There could be so much more going on, so many more challenges they are forced to face every day than we can imagine.

And this discussion emphasized the importance of empathy.

Empathy is generally defined as “the ability to comprehend and vicariously feel anothers emotional experience” (from the workshop slides).

Cognitive Empathy is when perceived information is held and manipulated in the mind (to be able to really think about someone else’s point of view, or to put yourself in their shoes), while affective empathy is the “swift recognition of the other’s emotion” and is what prompts “an emotional response within [the] observer.”

Various aspects of empathy include:

  • To be able to take the other’s perspective;
  • To be able to consider emotion; and
  • To be able to withhold judgement.

Dr. Bennett then described “three questions to lead your interactions” with students (below).

One of the slides from the workshop. These were questions provided to us in order to “lead [our] interactions” with students.

There was also some discussion on “teaching purposefully” – to have a growth oriented mindset for teaching, reflect on our experiences, and to grow. By reflecting, we can take a step back to figure out what is happening – what is working and what isn’t. This way, we can keep learning and growing.

At the end, we were able to break out into separate groups to discuss some of our own experiences and thoughts on how to be empathetic in the classroom. My group had some discussions on culture and how we may need to learn as much as we can about various cultures – what may seem proper and polite in one culture may not be the same in another. Expectations and typical behaviors may also differ. But the first step to learning more is by having these discussions in the first place, and in a setting where everyone is able to express themselves. It was a really laid back discussion and I enjoyed hearing more about everyone’s perspectives, thoughts, and experiences.

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