Tuesday, August 02, 2011

'Why Should We Care?'—What to Do About Declining Student Empathy

This from the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
Picture a college student appealing for a higher grade in his professor's office. The student admits to a mixed performance during the semester, but he still doesn't understand why the professor gave him such a low grade.

"Can't my worst grades just be dropped, including those zeros on the missed quizzes?" the student asks. "That way, my final grade would represent my best work in the class."

"But," the professor counters, "think of the students who worked hard all semester to read, take notes, and study, and who sacrificed time from other important activities to earn good grades. Don't we need to take them into account and be fair to everyone?"

The student may agree that he doesn't want to be unfair, but he remains convinced that he deserves a higher grade. Depending on the student's persistence and command of available arguments, this chipping away at the instructor's resistance could go on for some time. And now the professor is thinking, Goodness, this really is the student's most committed performance all term.

Many who teach experience versions of this conversation regularly and attempt to reason with wheedling students using arguments that rely on a principle of basic fairness. But asking students to respect others' perspectives can be the wrong approach if they don't understand how to empathize in the first place.

Imaginatively taking on another person's thoughts and identifying with their emotions are two habits at the core of empathy. In fact, empathy is not a fixed trait like having brown eyes or long fingers. Empathy is instead a delicate cocktail blending assorted elements of inborn aptitude, social conditioning, personal history, and practice and motivation...

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