Can Empathy Be Taught?

Empathy as a Learning Goal

We often say that students come to college to decide who they want to be. As university faculty, we’re not only preparing our students for success in their downstream courses; we’re also helping to prepare them for work and for life. In all of these domains, empathy is essential: Health care professionals need to be able to empathize with their patients. Communicators need to be able to empathize with their audiences. Leaders need to be able to empathize with their constituents.

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink identifies empathy as one of six “fundamentally human abilities that are absolute essentials for professional success and personal fulfillment.”

He describes the intellectual work: “Empathy is a stunning act of imaginative derring-do, the ultimate virtual reality—climbing into another’s mind to experience the world from that person’s perspective.” And he describes the value of empathy, both professionally and personally: “Empathy is much more than a vocational skill necessary for surviving twenty-first century labor markets. It’s an ethic for living,” he says. “Empathy allows us to see the other side of an argument, comfort someone in distress…Empathy builds self-awareness, bonds parent to child, and provides the scaffolding for our morality.”

From our own experiences, we know how validating and gratifying it can feel when someone empathizes with us, and how painful it can be when they don’t. We know that empathy is important—and that our students will need it—but is it possible to teach? With other, more familiar learning goals, we try to design opportunities for students to improve their skills over time through practice. How can they practice empathy?

Pink suggests trying “a day in the life” activities, through which participants learn more about the realities of other people’s circumstances and experiences; listening activities, including listening closely to and analyzing other people’s conversations (he calls these eavesdropping activities); practicing reading facial expressions and other nonverbal communication, including by analyzing photos and videos; practicing identifying and describing other people’s emotions; and volunteering, especially with people whose experiences are far different from our own.

Narratives are also powerful tools for perspective-taking and exploring other people’s emotions and motivations. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that reading literary fiction can enhance empathy. Fiction that effectively transports readers into the story emotionally has the most powerful effect. Students can also share personal stories, and listen to their peers’ stories, inside or outside of class. (Other creative and expressive processes can also be used to enhance empathy.)

Stories have been used to increase empathy and perspective-taking in a wide variety of disciplines, from the healthcare professions to religious studies. In engineering, too, narratives can even be used to reframe the discipline as one that involves empathizing with and helping others, which may attract some students currently underrepresented in the field. Narratives can also provide real-world contexts for engineering problems, and help students imagine the needs and desires of various stakeholders (Bennett and Monahan 2013).

Even with some great ideas for how to get started, helping students learn to empathize can still feel like quite a challenge. Some of us may have even tried with mixed results. It’s important to acknowledge that most of our students are adolescents whose brains are still developing. Adolescents are more prone to risk-taking behavior, and tend to be more emotionally reactive and less self-regulating than adults. At the same time, neuropsychologist Kerstin Konrad and her colleagues say, “The reorganization of the adolescent brain renders it particularly susceptible to environmental influences, both positive and negative.” This means that college is an important time during which students can have transformative learning experiences.

We hope that our classrooms will be places where they can stretch, because, as psychologist Katherine Andrews and her colleagues put it, “The ability and tendency to experience an affective response through understanding and identifying with the thoughts and emotions of others is a crucial component of social and moral development.” Thus, they said, empathy “plays an important role in our social interactions with others, and how we develop relationships (Grühn et al., 2008). Overall, this impacts our ability to adapt successfully and is therefore related to our psychological health and well-being (Keefer, Holden, & Parker, 2013).” It’s important for the health and well-being of our community as well.

We’re interested in learning more about how people develop empathy, and we know many of our colleagues have excellent activities to share. If you’re willing to share yours, please email us at, and we’ll include them in a future tip. We look forward to learning from you!