Project Investigator: Dr. Kate Berardi

What Are the Most Effective Components of Empathy Education for Undergraduate Students to Increase Their Empathy Levels?

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Half of the world’s seven billion human inhabitants are under the age of 30 (Boumphrey, 2012). With so many young people poised to run the world’s governments and businesses, the need to bolster support of and for the youth population grows with every new birth. As the numbers increase, so do the opportunities to forge connections in the increasingly global marketplace. Building the necessary social connections with others who may not share inherent values requires empathy (Davis, 1983 and Ferrant et al., 2011). Empathy is a life skill that should be taught alongside the core subjects of reading, writing, math, and science. From the time of birth, humans look to understand the emotions of others. Learning to show empathy toward others leads to prosocial behaviors that benefit both individuals and society. Empathy is not just about being kind to one another. Showing empathy to others is not only positive to the receiver of empathy, but also benefits the empathizer. People who are empathetic are higher academic achievers and adjust better socially when compared to their peers. While empathy is considered an inherent trait, many scientific studies reveal that it can also be taught and refined by schooling and life situations (Ferrant et al., 2011). Using these lines of thought, Penn State researchers, in partnership with the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway and UNESCO, developed a curriculum, called Activating Empathy for Undergraduate College Students, designed to teach empathy to students ranging in age from 18 to 25, with the intent of heightening the students’ abilities to empathize with those unlike themselves. The Activating Empathy curriculum includes a 12-hour core module that can be modified to meet the needs of a variety of audiences. The basic module includes topic such as the definition of empathy, conflict resolution, the psychology of empathy, listening skills, and mindfulness exercises. Using Kolb’s model for experiential learning, the lessons include opportunities for abstract conceptualization, active experimentation, concrete experience, and reflective observation (Kolb, 1984). The findings of this research indicate that emphasis on four components in an empathy education course for undergraduate students will increase their empathy levels. These areas are (1) the ability to perceive typical emotions in a situation; (2) the ability to respond appropriately to someone else’s emotions; (3) the ability to understand emotions in an interaction; and (4) the ability to separate one’s emotions from another’s emotions. Suggestions for how to incorporate these components into empathy education and everyday education are discussed.

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