Using Cognitive Empathy in the Classroom

Empathy may always be an asset in establishing classroom climates of trust and mutual support, but it is especially important in the context of extreme environmental stressors and turbulence. Clearly, the pandemic and its economic and social impact present this type of teaching-learning environment for all of us. Cognitive empathy is both a trait-like characteristic of individuals and a skill that we can apply to our teaching that may help students and faculty mitigate the stress we are facing while building trusting and supportive learning environments that promote student success.

Generally, most would define empathy as the ability to comprehend and vicariously feel another’s emotional experience. (Reniers et al,. 2011)

Researchers have identified two types of empathy, as defined below. Cognitive empathy is the type that we can develop and apply in our classrooms, while maintaining our teaching standards and expectations. Affective empathy often accompanies this mindset, but is not required for practicing cognitive empathy.

Cognitive Empathy
  • Requires perceived information being held and manipulated in the mind
  • Often a process shifting between points of view – i.e., first person, taking other’s perspective, compare/contrasting past experiences with similar characteristics
  • Results in the construction of a working model of the other’s emotional state
Affective Empathy
  • Swift recognition of the other’s emotion
  • Prompting an emotional response within observer identified as one’s self-emotional state
  • Results in a behavioral outcome that varies greatly

Introduce Empathy to your Classes

The following are strategies instructors can use to introduce and foster a mindset of empathy throughout the term:

  • Model it
  • Try to communicate empathy
  • Emphasize shared values and common interests
  • Offer a safe environment to discuss differences
  • Use self-disclosure
  • Create opportunities for collaboration

(Wabisabi Learning, n.d.)

Resources to help you get started:

  • It’s important for instructors (and students!) to understand why “human-ness” matters and the role that empathy plays in the classroom. Dr. Jeanette Bennett provides an introduction to both concepts in these workshop slides and associated podcast recording.

Cultivate Empathy through Stance

Empathetic instructors are guided by the following as they prepare for instruction and student interactions:

  • Follow the “Platinum Rule” (rather than the “Golden Rule”)
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Set aside your own reaction
  • Use “I” statements (rather than “you” statements)
  • Actively listen to what the student is saying
  • Don’t jump to “fix it” mode

(Understood for Educators, 2019)

Resources to help you get started:

  • Complete a self-assessment of your trait-like empathy.
  • Have students complete a survey, inviting them to share information about how they learn, their previous learning experiences, and ideas for learning/teaching moving forward.
  • Responding to resistant students can be particularly challenging. Determining what kind of resistance students are displaying can help instructors respond with empathy.

Cultivate Empathy through Dialogue

The ways that instructors facilitate classroom dialogue can establish an environment of empathy. Specifically, empathetic instructors should:

  • Be non-judgmental
  • Frame questions appropriately
  • Use body language
  • Validate emotions
  • Be comfortable with silence
  • Paraphrase and summarize the situation

(Understood for Educators, 2019)

Resources to help you get started:

  • Sentence starters and questions can help instructors begin conversations with empathy.
  • Establishing and maintaining empathy during polemical classroom discussions can be particularly challenging. These tips can help you prepare for and manage potentially tense discussions empathetically.

Want to learn more about empathy?

Check out the following resources for more information about cultivating empathy in teaching:


Gjesfjeld, C. D. (2014). Meeting student resistance with empathic teaching in the college classroom. Gauisus, 2, 1-8.

Koenig, R. (2020, February 18). How ‘dialogue’ can create empathy in a divided classroom. Edsurge.

Reniers, R. L. E. P., Corcoran, R., Drake, R., Shryane, N. M., & Vollm, B. A. (2011). The QCAE: A questionnaire of cognitive and affective empathy. Journal of Personality Assessment, 93(1), 84-95.

Tokunaga, E. (2017, May 19). 6 ways to cultivate empathy. UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services.

Understood for Educators. (2019). 7 ways to respond to students with empathy.

Understood for Educators. (2019). Sentence starters to speak with empathy.

Wabisabi Learning. (n.d.). The best ways of becoming a more empathetic teacher: Connect with your learners genuinely.