Teaching with Heart: Empathy in the Classroom

by Yuan Zhao, PhD  Lynn Fuller, PhD, RPh

Many instructor-related factors contribute to student learning in a classroom including mastery of subject, teaching style, attitude and enthusiasm.1 One factor that is often overlooked is the impact of empathy on the faculty-student relationship. Showing genuine concern and compassion for students can make the learning experience more positive and enjoyable for both the teacher and student alike.

Why do we, as pharmacy educators, need empathy?

As faculty members and educators, one of the greatest impacts we can make on our students is to demonstrate empathy in our interactions with students and others both inside and outside of the classroom. Empathy has been shown to play an important role in improving the learning capacity of individuals and strengthening critical thinking skills.2 Additionally, developing empathy skills in health care professionals is essential for a more positive patient experience.3 Through both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, care, compassion, and concern for our students is conveyed, which builds trust and potentially increases motivation in the classroom. Improving the empathetic skills of faculty members is vital to the educational process. Through the development of more meaningful relationships with students, improved learning outcomes may subsequently occur.

Faculty members play an important role in determining and controlling the learning environment while also serving as role models for students. Learning occurs via observation, imitation, and modeling.4 Therefore, faculty attitude and demeanor in the classroom could have a profound effect on students. For example, one postulation for the declines observed in medical student and resident empathy is that they may be emulating the behavior of the faculty.4 It is striking that, while many studies have been conducted to assess and improve the empathy level of health professional students and residents, no study has been undertaken to evaluate the empathetic capacity of faculty, especially those who teach in health care professional programs.

How can empathy be improved?

Since empathy has a subconscious nature, specific training in empathy is required to bring greater awareness to and understanding of verbal and nonverbal communication. An in-depth training protocol, grounded in neuroscience, has been developed that combines didactic, skill-based, and experiential training modules to improve empathy and relational skills in medical residents.While this training program could be adapted to improve the empathy of our faculty, perhaps a better first step is a simpler approach to learn these skills. The E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. checklist, developed by Dr. Helen Riess from Harvard Medical School, is an excellent tool to improve the nonverbal communication skills for clinicians. Similarly, this concept could be used as a training tool for faculty members to enhance communication skills and improve the teacher/student relationship. Here is the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. checklist with our new thoughts added.

  • E: eye contact – make sincere and meaningful eye contact with students
  • M: muscles of facial expression – show your kind, smiling face
  • P: posture – face toward students when you talk to them
  • A: affect – feel what students feel
  • T: tone of voice – talk in an enthusiastic tone with encouragement and empowerment
  • H: hearing the whole student – be a good listener
  • Y: your response – be available, be constructive, be considerate, be fun

Where we can start?

Several versions of empathy scales are available and have been used to measure the empathy level of the general population, students, and health care professionals. However, there is no valid tool available to measure the empathy level of teachers. If empathy is an essential skill for faculty to foster, a quantitative or qualitative study should be conducted to effectively measure the baseline level of faculty empathy. These studies should aim to determine factors that may contribute to potential differences among different populations. Examples include comparisons of junior versus senior faculty, and faculty from teaching- versus research-focused institutions. While we cannot predict the outcome, a systematic review of empathy among pharmacy faculty will provide information on the role of this important skill in the teacher/student relationship.
While we teach students empathy toward patients, let’s not overlook its power in building other relationships. Next time we are in the classroom, perhaps we can simply ask ourselves two questions: Do I have the ability to understand and view the world from my students’ perspectives? Am I able to connect to the experiences or feelings of my students? If our answers are a resounding “yes”, then we have taken the first step towards cultivating a more meaningful classroom experience.


We would like to thank our colleague Dr. Daniel Malcom, PharmD, for his insightful input for this project.


  1. Alsharif N. A Three-Year Study of the Impact of Instructor Attitude, Enthusiasm, and Teaching Style on Student Learning in a Medicinal Chemistry Course. Am J Pharm Edu. 2014:78(7):132.
  2. Briggs S. How Empathy Affects Learning, And How To cultivate It In Your Students. InformEd. 2014. https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/empathy-and-learning/. Accessed March 16, 2018.
  3. Riess HKraft-Todd G. E.M.P.A.T.H.Y.: a tool to enhance nonverbal communication between clinicians and their patients. Acad Med. 2014 Aug;89(8):1108-12.
  4. Weissman S. Faculty empathy and the hidden curriculum. Acad Med. 2012 Apr:87 (4):389.
  5. Riess HKelley JMBailey RWDunn EJPhillips M. Empathy training for resident physicians: a randomized controlled trial of a neuroscience-informed curriculum. J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Oct;27(10):1280-6.

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Yuan Zhao is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Sullivan University College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include innovative teaching strategies, assessment, and metacognition. In her free time, Yuan enjoys watching movies, reading books, and traveling with her family.

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Lynn Fuller is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Sullivan University College of Pharmacy. Her educational interests include physiology education, self-care, and engagement in the classroom. In her free time, Lynn enjoys reading, musical theater, and spending time with family.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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