How Do I Support Students with Compassion and Empathy?

How Do I Support Students with Compassion and Empathy?

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Image: Noun Project

As we have learned while teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering our students compassion and empathy supports their wellbeing and learning. This is true whether courses are taught face-to-face, fully online, or in a flexible combination of the two formats. Our students’ mental health concerns were more acute and visible during the pandemic, but even prior to COVID-19 there were clear indications that college aged students were experiencing a mental health crisis. In fact, national data suggested that over two thirds of college-aged students had experienced overwhelming anxiety within the past year and almost 25% of students had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety or depression (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2017). Focusing on learning under such conditions is difficult, to say the least. Stress has the potential to reduce students’ ability to pay attention, memorize new concepts, feel motivated, manage their time, and make decisions – all of which are part of learning (Imad, 2020a). So what, specifically, can we do to better support our students? We can design courses that offer flexibility, provide social connection, and connect students to wellbeing initiatives.


Guidelines for Compassionate and Empathetic Course Design

Teach to the learning outcomes, not the content. Identify what course content and features are most essential for learning and organize your assignments and class activities to highlight the essential learning outcomes for your course. If you have discussion forums, quizzes, iClicker questions, and Perusall readings as part of your course, consider if students actually need to do all of these activities to master the learning outcomes. If you have created pre-recorded videos illustrating basic concepts or ideas, consider whether you can then reduce your course readings or offer content in different ways. Reflect on what activities and what ways of delivering content work well for your students, and build your in-person, online, or flexible course around them.

Be flexible … but not too flexible. Consider allowing students to turn in assignments past the original due date for partial credit or create flexible deadlines for some assignments. Some faculty have found it helpful to offer students “grace tickets” or opportunities to turn in some work late with no questions asked. Keep in mind that you can offer students flexibility in how they demonstrate learning. For example, you can define classroom participation broadly to also include writing a summary of classroom activity for a week, or identifying helpful contributions by other students. You can also provide flexibility by adjusting your grading scheme so students only need to complete, say, 10 out of 12 quizzes, or 10 out of 15 discussion posts, for full credit. Keep in mind, too, that many students benefit from structure, and being too flexible can make it harder for them to prioritize tasks.

Offer a few low-stakes assessments instead of just one high-stakes one. Break that final paper or project into carefully scaffolded sub-assignments: a thesis statement, a research log, an annotated bibliography, and a shorter paper. Or divide your midterm and final exam into 6 smaller exams that focus on distinct portions of your course content. ”Chunking” assignments and assessments helps students more effectively organize their learning and supports academic integrity by de-emphasizing the high stakes associated with one final project or a single cumulative final. See our “How Do I...?” page on chunking content for more information.

Build peer support and collaboration into your course. Students will have an easier time if they feel they are part of a meaningful community. Give pairs or small groups of students time to work together, structure assignments so students need to work together, and encourage them to check in with each other. Encourage the development of trust and mutual support through community-building activities. See our “How Do I...?” page on group/collaborative work for more information.

Communicate Early and Often

Be in touch, then stay in touch. Establish and then actively maintain your communication with your students. Regularly reach out through emails; arrive to class a few minutes early or stay for a few moments after class to talk with students; and provide course announcements, chat opportunities, and individualized emails with supportive reminders or messages of reassurance. You can also review student participation in Moodle/Blackboard to help you identify which students do not seem actively engaged. For more ideas on how to stay in touch, see our “How Do I...?” page on teaching presence.

Repeat what you’ve said, and say it in multiple ways. When people are overwhelmed, their executive functioning skills diminish and they are less able to remember things. Providing information in multiple ways (during class sessions, on your course site, in assignments) will help your students. You can also create checklists in Moodle to help students organize themselves and remain on track. Use the phrase “Remember in week X, when we learned…” often (Imad, 2020b). And be understanding if they forget a course detail.

Provide a sense of safety in your class by encouraging open communication. Communicate with your students frequently, address them by their names, and let them know that they can be themselves in your class – even if being themselves means sharing the concerns of their daily lives. In face-to-face classes, arrive a few moments early so you can informally talk with students. In online sessions, open your Zoom classes early and stay a few minutes late so you can chat with your students, ask them how they are doing in general, and with your assignments. Consider doing the same with Zoom office hours. Model openness by sharing how you are experiencing the semester, and how you adjust your work routines. For more ideas on how to foster open communication in your class, see our “How Do I...?” page on teaching presence.

Connect Students to Campus Wellbeing Efforts

Become familiar with campus resources for student wellbeing. The Maroon folder is a resource guide for recognizing and assisting students in distress. The UMatter team has developed this guide to help you recognize, respond to, refer, and report concerns about your students. Updated regularly, the Maroon folder is a one-stop guide to supporting students in need. Student Affairs and Campus Life (SACL) also maintains a regularly updated webpage listing a full range of student support services.

Validate your students’ feelings and encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health. Advise students to seek out help if they need professional mental health support. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) has a webpage devoted to helping students with various resources and supports. Send out a link to this page through a course announcement.

Let students know how to find the support available to them. The campus offers various opportunities for students to participate in their own care, including: therapy, mindfulness opportunities, positivity and relaxation training, peer health workshops, and more. For more details, see the campus Wellbeing and Safety webpage. Veteran Services also maintains a list of campus resources for veterans, including a list of Veteran Guidelines and Best Practices in the Classroom. The International Programs Office also lists resources that can improve the wellbeing of international students.

Finally, please be compassionate to yourself. Take care of your own physical and mental health. The Office of Faculty Development regularly hosts well-being events and provides a list of the resources available to support faculty wellbeing. You might also consider the CTL’s Contemplative Pedagogy Working Group, a regular venue for discussing pedagogies of compassion and empathy.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at



Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2017). Annual Report. Retrieved from:

Costa, K. (2019, August 12). Trauma-informed teaching [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Henriques, G. (2018, November 18). The college student mental health crisis (update) [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Imad, M. (2020a) Trauma-informed pedagogy: Teaching in uncertain times [Magna Online seminar].

Imad, M. (2020b, March 17). 10 strategies to support students and help them learn during the coronavirus crisis. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from