Closing the Empathy Gap in Online Teaching

by Russell Thacker, PhD

“Is it possible to know my students well enough to love them?” This question was on my mind a lot this year. As an online instructor with students dispersed around the country and in a pandemic when students and faculty weren’t able to meet as regularly as before, I found it difficult to know what was actually going on in my students’ lives.

Sure, I knew enough about my students. There was a nice headshot in the school directory and some background information about their class standing. They each uploaded a polished video introduction, and their papers contained some clues to their personal, family, or cultural backgrounds. But I often found myself wondering, do I really know them?

One student whom I had been emailing all week about a class issue mentioned in a discussion post to another student that she had just spent a few days in the hospital and was recovering from some health issues. Another had to withdraw from classes unexpectedly due to stress. And a third student who was uncharacteristically upset over an assignment later revealed he was immuno-compromised and had been unable to leave his apartment for some time. And on and on the experiences went. I often wished I could sit down and have a conversation with each of my students, face-to-face and heart-to-heart. Just five minutes during an office hour to say hello, ask a few questions, and check body language might be able tell me more than fifty minutes of email, discussion posts, or the occasional video chat.

But this was not possible this year, and it may not be likely in the future with the growth of online education. Even after the pandemic, distributed and asynchronous online learning will remain a staple of higher education. Online education has proven excellent at increasing access but poor at expanding empathy. This matters because faculty-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships are just as valuable products of higher education as the content of the learning itself. As one education scholar, Jennifer Morton, cautioned, “Online education can teach very many things, but it is not a promising space for students to practice and develop the non-cognitive skills they need to navigate many aspects of having a successful career in the middle-class.” It will be increasingly important for online instructors to find ways to build relationships with their students in new and creative ways.

How can you close the distance between you and your students? These five practices can help any online, remote, or asynchronous teacher better connect and empathize with their students.

Invest in Learning About Students Upfront
Making deliberate efforts to learn about students at the beginning of a course can yield important insight. One teacher distributes a personal background and goal survey to each class member and uses this information to make personal connections with them throughout the course. Others schedule one-on-one video meetings with each student in their first two weeks of the course.

Build Informality into Course Structures
Technology can be wonderful for connecting, but it can also make interactions more formal than they need to be. When I log into a Zoom meeting, there is pressure to begin right away and then sign off at the end to use the time responsibly. But in-person classes are not like this. There is informal time at the beginning, end, and at various points throughout. You can start online class with icebreaker questions to get everyone talking, schedule brain breaks for students to interact with each other, and practice “last one out” by staying online after class until everyone else has left in case someone wants to speak with you.

“I Just Called to Say‚Ķ”
You don’t need to wait for a reason to check in with students about how they are doing or how the class is going. Through email or chat, ask if there is anything you need to know as an instructor that is happening outside class that could affect their class performance. Better yet, be familiar with what they have shared about their background and goals so you can follow up on their interests.

Ask for a Mid-Class Evaluation
Honest feedback is hard to come by in an online space until the end of the course. Students may say the right things when asked, and online discussion boards typically have a rosy complexion. This leaves me wondering how students are really doing in the course. I have found that asking for feedback during a course through a mid-term survey or focus group yields better insight and gives the students a place to open up and be more vulnerable in their responses. Also, reaching out to individual students to ask for their feedback on an assignment is a great way to build rapport.

Treat Information with Utmost Care
Finally, it can be difficult for students to share information with their instructors whom they have never met in person or who live far away. When students reveal any piece of information, treat it with utmost care. Carefully regarded information can go a long way toward building trust and deepening connections.

Of course, loving your students isn’t solely dependent on knowing them. We should love them regardless. But online teachers can build better relationships of trust and be more effective in supporting students through a stronger personal connection, and this requires more awareness than online teachers usually have. What other techniques have you found useful in closing the empathy gap between you and your students?

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