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A Guide for Creating an Empathetic Learning Environment

Empathy, in course development, refers to an educator’s ability to understand the problems, needs, and desires a group of learners faces through research and inquisition. An inclusive learning environment is one where all students feel academically and intellectually supported, feel a sense of belonging and respect, and do not feel closed off from the rest of their peers. It is, therefore, invaluable to identify ways educators can create an inclusive learning environment while also crafting content that is empathetic to the needs of the diverse nursing student population.

Literature suggests that to develop an inclusive learning environment, we must start with self-awareness. To understand and dialogue effectively with our students, we must recognize and understand our voices and perspectives. This requires thoroughly self-examining personally held biases and evaluating our social connectedness (Dewsbury & Brame, 2019). 

This article will offer an explanation of the importance associated with creating an inclusive learning environment, describe design thinking and empathetic instructional design practices, describe the role empathy plays in the course design, describe the many ways that inclusivity can be embedded in the learning environment while remaining empathetic to student needs, and describe the importance of promoting critical awareness in education practices. 

Fostering Inclusivity

Some best practices to follow for creating an inclusive learning environment (Billings & Halstead, 2024) are to:

  • Apply the universal design for learning concepts
  • Integrate collaborative learning exercises
  • Utilize and apply design thinking concepts when creating learning activities
  • Create a curriculum that touches on social justice and cultural sensitivity
  • Provide an effective learning support infrastructure
  • Address preconceived biases and avoid stereotyping

For instance, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CAST, 2018) is a commonly used design framework that curriculum developers and educators use to optimize teaching and learning. The UDL requires that a learning environment includes multiple methods of engagement, multiple methods of representation to encompass a variety of learning styles, and multiple types of expression and communication tools (CAST, 2018). 

Interprofessional competencies, such as those used by nursing education, called the Interprofessional Education Collaborative (IPEC) Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice, provide best-practice guidelines for integrating interprofessional concepts into learning and educational settings (IPEC, 2023). 

The IPEC competencies consist of four domains widely applicable to the clinical and academic setting in nursing and could also be applied to multiple education areas of focus. 

  • The first domain is associated with taking a team approach to maintain shared values, engage in ethical conduct, and engage in respect for each other. 
  • The second domain focuses on making an effort to acknowledge the knowledge, skills, and abilities that team members contribute to improving a process. 
  • The third domain focuses on how the team responds and interacts with one another to promote respect, compassion, and empathy. 
  • The fourth domain focuses on how the team members work together to foster group values and principles (IPEC, 2023). 

Designing With Intention

Thus far, we have discussed the Universal Design for Learning and the integration of the IPEC competencies to foster inclusion and encourage active collaboration. The next thing to consider is the design and structure of the learning offering or activity. 

The learning activities are just as much a part of the learning environment as the environment itself. Let us focus on applying design thinking. Design thinking is a method for problem-solving, and there are five stages (IDF et al., 2024). 

  1. Empathy – The educator will want to research students’ needs through a student-centered approach. 
  2. Design – The educator will need to organize the information gathered from the research and decide on the focus of the education
  3. Ideate – The educator should evaluate the problem or focus of the education from multiple perspectives and sit in the seat of both the learner and the educator who will teach the content. 
  4. Prototype –The educator will develop a plan for the content and the environment in which it will be taught.
  5. Test –  The educator will practice and test the education plan for efficacy. 

Next, take what you know about the student-centered focus and layer in the concepts of social justice and inclusivity. These concepts apply to both the curriculum or content and the environment. 

The central tenets of social justice are centered around providing fair and equitable treatment of others as well as access to services, remaining mindful of the diversity of thought, culture, and perspectives one brings to a learning environment, and remaining inclusive in our actions and in creating a welcoming learning environment for all. 

The educator must also be cognizant of the generational differences that may have an impact on learning, the social dynamics in a live or online setting, and how those differences can have an impact as it relates to the ability to use technologies that are embedded within a course (Billings & Halstead, 2024). 

Mapping Out Relevant Considerations

There are considerations to be made when planning a learning activity and addressing the needs of the learning environment associated with the setting, such as the number of times an educational session will be offered, the plan to include those who cannot attend, and the type of delivery method. 

If planning a learning activity in a formal live setting, the educator must consider how the education is offered. For instance, this may require that multiple sessions are provided in case prospective learners cannot attend due to other life constraints. 

Further, the educator must consider whether the educational offering will be synchronous or asynchronous and whether technology will be used. The educator will need to create an inclusive and fair learning environment for all students as it relates to access to the materials following the event (Billings & Halstead, 2024). Some students may have issues related to access to a viable Internet connection, rely on borrowing computer hardware to do coursework, have limited resources, have barriers associated with travel, or have a disability issue requiring physical accommodations. The educator should make a conscious effort to assist where possible and connect the student with services that can help promote learning and encourage persistence (Billings & Halstead, 2024). 

Identifying and Eliminating Potential Bias

Another practice to consider is associated with avoiding bias and stereotyping. Some strategies to use to avoid bias in curriculum development and within the learning environment (Billings & Halstead, 2024) are to:

  • Perform a self-assessment and review personally held biases
  • Engage in mindfulness during interactions with other diverse groups of people and self-evaluate personal actions
  • Use gender-neutral language during discussions and case study presentations
  • Provide information on resources that support students with a language barrier
  • Be mindful of non-verbal communication cues and facial expressions
  • Create study guides and helpful tipsheets for assignments and complex concepts
  • Allow students time to respond to questions while taking notice if a student is having an issue answering
  • Use effective communication and intonation when speaking 

Whether you are teaching in a live or online environment, an infrastructure that supports learning is essential. Ensuring that the organization’s policies and procedures regarding student and faculty responsibilities and all things associated with the learning environment are followed is an important first step. It is also important to ensure that educators are fully aware of the support services available to help students in the academic environment (Billings & Halstead, 2024). 

The Golden Rule: Leading by Example

Finally, an essential component of being a strong educator is having the ability to recognize the talent around us. We can inspire many by modeling positive behaviors and creating an empathetic learning environment. 

We have so very much to learn from one another. It is so important that we are open to sharing our experiences and be willing to teach others. Ultimately, combining best practices will facilitate an effective learning and teaching experience. 

In education, our students are the center of focus. As a new learning experience is being crafted, take time to sit in the learner’s seat and use that perspective to ensure that the experience will benefit students and educators alike.


References:

1. Billings, Dianne M., and Judith A. Halstead. Teaching in Nursing: A Guide for Faculty. 7th ed. Elsevier, 2024.

2. CAST. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines Version 2.2. 2018.

3. Dewsbury, Bryan, and Cynthia J. Brame. “CBE.” Life Sciences Education 18, no. fe2 (2019).

4. Dam, Rikke F., and Teo Yu Siang. “The 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process.” Interaction Design Foundation – IxDF, March 1, 2024.

5. Interprofessional Education Collaborative (IPEC). 2021-2023 IPEC Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice: Version 3. 2023.

Dr. Bellucci is the Academic Program Director for the School of Nursing at Columbia Southern University. She received her Ph.D. in nursing education from Capella University, is also a Certified Nurse Educator, and holds a Master’s degree in online learning design and technology. She has held multiple clinical nursing and academic nursing faculty and leadership positions. She has taught and created courses spanning the undergraduate to graduate nursing levels, served as a primary author for over 60 courses in the online setting, served as the primary author of a study guide for nurses, and volunteers in service of the nursing profession through her work as an author, peer-reviewer, and an accreditation site reviewer and team leader for CNEA. She serves as the principal course developer and curriculum designer who possesses a high level of proficiency in a student-centered approach to curriculum development, design, building, and delivery.


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