Developing empathy

Pedagogy built on dialogue requires a more concrete understanding of how diverse personalities function in collaborative environments.

  • Carefully understand the student within their sociocultural and institutional contexts.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share their personal narratives (student voice) and use that to build relationships and pedagogies reflecting the inclusion of those voices.
  • Read literature on the sociology and psychology of the student higher education experience.
  • Create opportunities for dialogue beyond individual meetings. Casual conversations before class begins or in the hallway can be extraordinarily impactful.
  • Provide students an opportunity for agency, both in terms of articulation of the material and sharing their story with you/others. Their unique voices should form the framework around which the pedagogy is built.
  • Provide feedback in a timely fashion, and use that as an opportunity for ongoing dialogue

In addition to the articles summarized and linked below, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education and Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed provide a strong base from which to start this work.

Bernier, A., Larose, S. & Soucy, N. (2005). Academic mentoring in college: The interactive role of student’s and mentor’s interpersonal dispositions. Research in Higher Education, 46, 29-51. The authors report a significant relationship between contrasting interpersonal dispositions between students and faculty mentors. Drawn from the counseling literature, the authors used two instruments, the Adult Attachment Interview, and the Attachment Style Questionnaire, to measure the different relationship styles of students and their mentors. The study was done on a Canadian population of students (n=90) and 10 professors. Personalities were described in accordance with measuring instrument as ‘dismissive’ or ‘dependent’. Dismissive in this context referred to personalities that have a preference for independent work, and are not easily willing to accept advice. Dependency was defined as personalities that prefer constant interaction and connection to another individual. The conventional assumption that in this context, people with personalities that valued attachment would find greater value in relationships with someone who did likewise. However, the most significant relationship was that students with dismissive tendencies benefited from professors who valued dependency. A similar contrast occurred where students preferring attachment benefited more from professors with a preference for autonomy. The authors conclude that early mentor-mentee relationship dissonance that occurs as a result of the different personality styles, may provide mentees greater opportunities to grow, and hypothesize that this may be the reason for the significant statistical relationship. This has implications for how pedagogues engage mentoring relationships. Instructors should consider in their pedagogy 1) the reality that differences in personality may offer opportunities for both student and mentor to grow in unique ways and 2) that the simple pairing of ideological similarity may result in a narrow educational experience.

Cole, D. (2008). Constructive Criticism: The role of student-faculty interactions on African-American and Hispanic students’ educational gains. Journal of College Student Development 49, 587-609. Drawing on studies in cognitive and social psychology, the author investigates the role of constructive criticism specific to African-American and Hispanic students. The specific focus comes from suggestions of previous authors on approaches to combat identity contingencies such as Stereotype Threat. These include providing criticism in a way that promotes growth mindsets, with specific feedback that is actionable. Blanket descriptors may lead to the student perceiving that their ability level is a fixed commodity. Since this suggestion has been posited as a potentially powerful mitigating factor for these populations, the study seeks to determine if in fact this effect exists. The author used data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), which has been collecting baccalaureate data since 1966. Self-report data from the questionnaire was used to determine with there were relationships between the survey constructs of ‘constructive criticism’, ‘peer involvement in academic activities’ and ‘interracial contact’. Using GPA as the response variable, the author shows that negative feedback provided in the context of learning and improvement can significantly improve academic outcomes. Similarly, opportunities for students to engage in quality peer interactions both through social activities and across cultures may contribute to an academic growth mindset derived from being part of a community. Where historically underrepresented students matriculate into academic contexts that potentially trigger identity contingencies, there is a need for empathetic pedagogical strategies that promote growth mindsets, and lessen the potential of reinforcing negative senses of self.

Gonsalves, L. M. (2002). Addressing the pitfalls of white faculty/black male student communication. College Composition and Communication 53, 435-465. This qualitative study dissected the nature of the interaction between white faculty and black male students in the context of a composition class. There is strong relevance here for the ways in which dominant culture faculty can consider empathy for students from historically underrepresented groups. Ten students and twelve teachers were recruited for interviews. Analysis of interview data revealed that pitfalls in the interactions between white faculty and black students typically fell into one of three categories. First, faculty failed to address academic difficulties in a timely fashion. This sometimes stems from a fear of engaging the student due to the perceived spotlighting of the issue, causing further disengagement. Failure to provide early feedback however can result in the student both sinking further into bad habits, and an increased feeling of disconnection from the material and the instructor. Second, some faculty develop high levels of frustration with the student. Once the interaction become emotional, opportunities for learning are decreased, and there is an increased likelihood of the relationship becoming contentious. Third, faculty often have full if not false confidence in the clarity of their expectations. Therefore, in this scenario, if the student struggles, it becomes easy to lay blame on student practice and not the pedagogy. The article then describes, in Freirean tradition, the need for cultivating a relationship of trust, within which feedback and dialogue can occur without defensiveness. There is a knee-jerk tendency for institutions to turn to external consultants (even within the institution) to address within classroom issues. There is certainly value in dialoguing with those with experience in pedagogical issues. However, the data needed for the solution often resides within the student, and requires an authentic dialogue with them to extract it. The article essentially argues for this dialogue to be a more intentional aspect of the curriculum. The ethos of this is best summarized by the quote from the article “Having experienced consultants come in from outside of the institution can have one type of impact, but  listening to and talking with people one sees everyday is more likely to go further in altering actual classroom behavior among faculty”.

Newman, C. B. (2011). Engineering Success: the role of faculty relationships with African-American undergraduates. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 17, 193-207. This article uses social-relational models theory to describe the interactions that students of color in engineering had with faculty mentors during their baccalaureate experience. The author also considered Bensimmon’s cognitive frame model and Harper’s anti-deficit framework in dissecting how these current professional engineers reflected on their experiences. Themes relevant to the experiences they had with faculty mentors generally landed in one of three categories. First, there were ‘lone-wolf supporters’. Lone-wolf supporters were strong advocates for students, taking them under their wing, or referring them to academic and social contexts that were certain to advance their holistic experience. They unfortunately however stuck out among other faculty who more conventional or aloof in their approaches. Second, ’low expectations faculty’ took a gatekeeper’s mentality to academics, and often made assumptions on students’ willingness and/or ability to engage the level of work needed to be successful. The third major theme has to do with the lack of same-race faculty role models. This spoke to the nagging persistence of underrepresentation of faculty of color within STEM disciplines.

Mitra, D.L. (2004). The significance of students: Can increasing “student voice” in schools lead to gains in youth development? Teachers College Record 106, 651-688. [Author abstract] The notion of ‘‘student voice,’’ or a student role in the decision making and change efforts of schools, has emerged in the new millennium as a potential strategy for improving the success of school reform efforts. Yet few studies have examined this construct either theoretically or empirically. Grounded in a sociocultural perspective, this article provides some of the first empirical data on youth participation in student voice efforts by identifying how student voice opportunities appear to contribute to ‘‘youth development’’ outcomes in young people. The article finds that student voice activities can create meaningful experiences for youth that help to meet fundamental developmental needs–especially for students who otherwise do not find meaning in their school experiences. Specifically, this research finds a marked consistency in the growth of agency, belonging and competence–three assets that are central to youth development. While these outcomes were consistent across the students in this study, the data demonstrate how the structure of student voice efforts and nature of adult/student relations fundamentally influence the forms of youth development outcomes that emerge.

Return to Map

Cite this guide: Dewsbury B, Brame CJ. (2019) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Inclusive Teaching. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
  • Your feedback helps improve the site