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Covid-19 inspires renewed empathy for our students

COVID-19 has disrupted higher education. Several weeks ago, we shifted rapidly from on-campus teaching to emergency remote teaching. The cognitive load (Sweller, 1988, 2011) for instructors has been enormous as they have been called upon to quickly learn how to use unfamiliar technology tools and implement an array of previously unused strategies for engaging students in learning. The learning curve is steep. It takes time for instructors to learn, and they have expressed a need to practice using the tools in order to build confidence for teaching. Does this remind you of comments you heard pre-COVID-19? It should. The recent instructor learning experience reflects the student experience: the learning curve can be steep; students need time to learn; they build confidence through practice.

The unexpected rapid shift to remote teaching has afforded what I’ll call pandemic promoted empathy—PPE of a different kind in these COVID-19 times, where circumstances have created an opportunity for instructors to be reminded of what it feels like to be a student. Lately, I’ve been co-facilitating webinars for instructors on strategies for teaching remotely. In one of the webinars, we did a small group activity in Zoom breakout rooms where participants, who were instructors at the university where I work, were asked to respond to these prompts:

1. Tell your group members how you would complete this prompt: I learn best when …

2. Brainstorm: Why would we have asked you to complete this particular prompt?

When we brought participants back to the whole group, we asked them to type their responses to Question 2 in the Zoom chat box. Some responses spoke directly to empathy, for example: “to feel what students feel” and “to understand the challenges students may face.” Other responses implied empathy, such as: “to help teachers realize how people learn differently” and “I think the idea is that we’ll find remote ways to facilitate learning in a huge range of ways.”

Being reminded of the need for empathy can be important for instructors—and for all of us working in higher education—who sometimes lose sight of the steep learning curve one faces when trying to understand unfamiliar concepts and acquire new skills. Why do we need reminding? Because we suffer from the “curse of knowledge,” which Wieman (2007) describes as “the idea that when you know something, it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it.” As experts in our fields who are immersed in the knowledge after years of living and breathing it, we forget what it’s like to struggle to “get” a concept or have to repeat an action myriad times to be able to demonstrate what might seem to us to be a simple skill. In writing about perspective-taking and empathy, one educator asserts:

[ … ] teachers, at all levels, must overcome ‘the curse of knowledge.’ If they can’t remind themselves of what they were like before they understood something well, they will be at a loss to explain it to their students. Everything is obvious once you know it. (Schwartz, 2015)

As I face the challenge of quickly scaling my knowledge and skills for supporting instructors with implementing remote teaching, I keep thinking about how instructors must be feeling as they contend with the many challenges imposed by a rapid shift to an unfamiliar mode of teaching. My empathy informs how I work with instructors: I have to explain why recommended strategies for remote teaching are, indeed, recommended; I have to demonstrate strategies and allow practice; I have to be patient.

What instructors are experiencing now may renew their empathy for students who regularly face steep learning curves. Renewed empathy has the potential for enhancing student learning. In this pandemic time, when we are faced with a mosaic of student faces—or sometimes just names—on our screens, we should remember the importance of implementing learning activities that systematically and incrementally build on students’ knowledge and experiences. We must also be patient with students as they learn.

It is important to look for any good that emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. If the rapid shift from on-campus to remote teaching results in enhanced teaching because of renewed empathy for the student learning experience – that is good.

Interested in knowing more about teacher empathy in higher education? Read: Meyers, S., Rowell, K., Wells, M., & Smith, B. C. (2019). Teacher empathy: A model of empathy for teaching for student success. College Teaching, 67(3), 160-168. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1579699


Schwartz, B. (2015). What ‘learning how to think’ really means. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-Learning-How-to-Think/230965

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.

Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55, 37-76. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-387691-1.00002-8

Wieman, C. E. (2007). APS News–The back page. The “curse of knowledge,” or why intuition about teaching often fails. American Physical Society News, 16(10). https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200711/backpage.cfm

Climbing photo by Frantisek Duris on Unsplash.

Zoom call photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning! (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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