Empathy in Course Design
In their book, Understanding by Design, authors Wiggins and McTighe describe empathy as "the deliberate act of trying to find what is plausible, sensible, or meaningful in the ideas and actions of others..."(p.98-99). Empathy requires us to be attentive to the experiences of others and (in a sense) walk alongside them as we work to understand what may (at times) seem puzzling to us - because of the distance between our experiences and those of our students.
To further an understanding of the practical development of empathy in a design context, Kouprie and Sleeswijk Visser (2009) have proposed 3 key elements - the connection to designing for learning was added.
- Motivation: if we are curious about our learners, we are more likely to see why empathy is important in the design process and take steps to incorporate a practice that draws on it.
- Process awareness: both affective resonance and cognitive reasoning can enhance empathy. This requires us to work to understand the feelings and emotions that learners bring to the classroom and the meanings associated with those emotions.
- Structured investment of time: empathy can be enhanced when you apply strategies to gain or deepen your insight about your learners. This can happen through design activities like empathy mapping or in practice by engaging with students in conversation - in class, over coffee, in an online discussion or a walk across campus.
When we are designing courses (or any learning experience) we are designing for our learners. Our intention is to support a change, a deepening of understanding, the development of skills and competencies and the emergence of new perspectives or ways of thinking about a discipline and its recurring themes and issues. This requires us to develop and deepen our own insights about our learners, their experiences, challenges and perspectives. Empathy helps us to develop and sharpen those insights over time and is foundational to any human centered design endeavor. The design learning experiences would certainly fall in that category.
This video offers another perspective on why empathy is an important lens on designing anything.
This process may make you feel uncomfortable. Why?
- it is drawing on your imagination - but grounded in your experience.
- you may feel like your single empathy map cannot possibly represent all students.
- it may reveal your own biases - by what you choose to add to your map.
It may help to remember that this is an exercise designed to help you think deeply about aspects of student life beyond what happens in your course in order for you to generate insights - about your students, yourself and your classroom environment.
Build your empathy map
Time requirement: Give yourself a full 30 minutes to complete your map. This map, and the student persona you develop, will become a touchstone for you during the design process, over the 3 days of the CDI and beyond. Since this requires deep thinking and imagination - try to be in a place that supports that for you.
- Empathy map for working blank sample (pdf). * Create a hardcopy to bring to Day 1 of the workshop. Either print a copy of the blank sample to work from or recreate the map easily on a blank piece of regular or oversized paper. [We recommend working with pen and paper for this activity, rather than digital, as it supports the brainstorming process to be able to easily add ideas to your paper.]
- Empathy map for reference- filled example. (pdf)
Steps in the process:
Develop a student persona to work with (based on what you know about your learners) and use that as a basis for developing your empathy map. You can think about a specific student or develop your persona as a composite of students that you might expect to take your course (ie. first year, graduate level, etc.).
- Step 1 - spend time thinking - give your student persona (or composite) a name, situation (their history/story), intentions (motivations for study). Write a few sentences in the middle of your map describing your student persona so that you can really visualize your student as you are completing the map.
- Step 2 - fill in the empathy map in as much detail as possible (hint: detail is where the insights lay). Keep in mind that there are no "right" answers--this exercise is meant to help you brainstorm possibilities about your learners. Here are some suggested questions to ask yourself as you fill out your map:
- Actions: what do you imagine that your students do (in class and out)? This can include their lives outside of class.
- Thoughts/Feelings: building from the actions, what thoughts and feelings do you imagine they have or experience on a regular basis? This can include thoughts about themselves, their classes, their decisions, etc.
- Influences: What do you perceive to be the influences on their thoughts, feelings and actions? This might be their beliefs and values about themselves, the world and their purpose. It may also include the influence of people who are important in their lives.
- Goals: From what you've surfaced so far, what do you imagine the students goals might be for their studies, their lives and their future?
- Pain Points: What disappointments may have influenced your student's thinking or behavior?
- Step 3 - Review your entire map and consider where you may need to take a deeper dive in your imagination to surface important details which may lead to deeper insight. Really conceptualize your student persona as an individual. Add to your map.
After filling out your empathy map in as much detail as possible, make a few notes to bring to Day 1 of the CDI:
- What insights emerge as you review your empathy map?
- What are the problems/ needs that your learner needs to address?
- Try to complete the sentence at the end of your map - this is called a point of view or POV statement which can help in the design process later on.
- Be sure to bring a hardcopy of your completed map to Day 1 of the CDI!
- ↑ Merlijn Kouprie & Froukje Sleeswijk Visser (2009) A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user's life, Journal of Engineering Design, 20:5, 437-448, DOI: 10.1080/09544820902875033 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09544820902875033