Lilly Series – Empathetic Teaching to Meet Student Needs

By guest blogger and Early LCC Laboratory Instructor, Heidi Jordan.  The Lilly Series is a set of posts based on sessions held at the Lilly Conference for Evidence-Based Teaching, October 2015. 

Rowell used this picture as a visual representation of empathy.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of frustration with the learner when students are not understanding course content or keeping up with the course load. At the Lilly conference, I attended a keynote presentation by Katherine Rowell on The Importance of Teacher Empathy in Student Success. It was an appreciated reminder of how I can use empathy to better meet the needs of our traditional and non-traditional students, helping them to succeed at Lansing Community College. 

We often think of having to water down the curriculum in order to show empathy for our students, however there are ways to do so without expecting your students to do or learn less. Getting to know your students is the first step. What are their personal and academic goals? What are their fears? You can better prepare yourself to meet their needs when you know what those needs are. Building rapport with students can be an important part of helping them feel comfortable in a college classroom setting. You might inject appropriate humor into your lectures to do this, or you might consider adapting a more authentic approach and teaching style. 

Building positive relationships with students can take time but there are practical and simple things that can be done immediately to show empathy and understanding of your student’s needs. Your syllabus could be “warmed,” reviewing the language and adapting it with terms that are easily understood by your students. Emailing or calling students when they miss class can be a personal way to connect with them to let them know it was noticed. Some instructors might even consider encouraging activities outside of the classroom, i.e., peer lunches or study groups in the park. 

Reviewing your tardy and attendance policies, or offering a limited amount of test retakes might be another idea. Many colleges and universities are moving to policies that scaffold their expectations based on the course level and student population. Our work as educators is becoming increasingly complex as our students have increasingly varied needs. Using empathy with our students may be the key to their success. 

If you’d like to learn more about the Lilly Conference, visit the CTE or contact Heidi Jordan at

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