3 Ways to Use Cognitive Empathy in eLearning

 3 Ways to Use Cognitive Empathy in eLearning

“Our innate capacity for empathy is the source of the most precious of all human qualities.” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The best leaders are teachers, and they have the power to promote empathy in their practice. Empathy is a skill that is an integral part of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. It is a critical component of designing and developing impactful learning experiences.

As an elearning developer, using empathy is beneficial and necessary to enhance the course materials, communicate clearly, and minimize conflict. Part of the learning journey fosters an understanding with the learner, allowing them to be vulnerable and open to taking in the new knowledge. 

Empathy is an asset, so let’s explore how we can develop empathy in elearning.


What is Empathy?

According to American research professor, lecturer, and author Brené Brown, “Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of ‘You’re not alone.'”

It is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. Empathy allows people to build social awareness and connections with others. Social awareness is the ability to “read the room.” You can pick up on the feelings of people around you, as well as see social dynamics at play. 

Our fast-moving society often doesn’t foster the time or environment needed to connect with others. Empathy also doesn’t just happen naturally for many people. The good thing is that empathy is just like a muscle that can be trained and improved over time. You can cultivate and develop empathy as a skill.

There are three types of foundational empathy are:

  1. Cognitive Empathy: This is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This type of empathy is considering others’ points of view.
  2. Emotional Empathy: This is feeling someone else’s emotions alongside them, like a sponge. 
  3. Compassionate Empathy: This is taking action. It is the ability to feel someone’s pain and take action to help. It is motivated by our efforts to reduce suffering. 

The type of empathy we will explore to power up our elearning development is cognitive empathy.

Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the popular book, Emotional Intelligence, refers to cognitive empathy as “perspective-taking.” It is defined as knowing, understanding, or comprehending on an intellectual level. Simply put, it is a thinking empathy versus feeling it. For example, we can understand someone’s sadness, but it is not the same as feeling their sadness.

By using cognitive empathy and understanding diverse points of view, you can develop course materials that motivate your learners to engage with your content more deeply.

Here are three ways to use cognitive empathy as a development strategy in elearning.

  1. “Steel Man” Your Course with Empathy

 One of the best ways to increase cognitive empathy in elearning is to use the steel man approach, as defined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. The first step of Dennett’s process of effectively distilling wisdom is “steel manning.” Learning development professionals should learn to use this method to persuade their learners and motivate them to engage with the course content fully. Here are the steps:

  1. Begin the course by putting yourself in the shoes of a learner without prior knowledge of the topic. Clearly express their current situation in such a way that they could boldly state, “yes, that is me, and that is how I feel right now.” 
  2. In your course, before providing any knowledge, clearly outline the facts of the concept to be discussed. This includes any research conducted, scientific facts, and other reasons to validate the ideas you will be teaching later. This is the why, or the golden circle of your course, as Simon Sinek coined. 
  3. Next, connect the dots for the learner by mentioning the no prior knowledge myths from the beginning and distilling the myths with the facts already presented.
  4. Only then should you begin teaching the concept. 

Steel-manning in elearning course development is effective because it signals to the learner that they are being understood and positions the educator as a trusted advisor acting in good faith. 

With appropriate practice, increasing cognitive empathy in your course development will become your second nature. Humans respond to affection and understanding. Advertisers understand the human mind’s wants and needs. The commercials that resonate are the ones that anticipate our deepest wishes and speak to our hearts. 

  1. Step into the Shoes of your Learners

Before writing out your course script or defining the learning objectives, start by being empathetic through understanding your learners. Identify your target audience, and use appropriate techniques to help convey your message from their perspective. A few examples are:

  • Run tests with your existing courses by conducting interviews with learners after completion.
  • Use course knowledge checks, polls, surveys, and follow-up emails to collect more feedback.
  • Track your target audience’s social media habits and patterns to gauge their habits and note the type of content that grabs their attention.
  • If possible, engage in live conversation with your learners to help you glean valuable insights into their motivations for taking the course. Ask open-ended questions and actively listen.
  1. Check Your Cognitive Biases

In a related article, I discussed ways to you can unbias elearning with a checklist. While bias is natural to the human condition, by being aware of your biases, you will be able to cultivate a more equitable learning environment. It is important to note that cognitive biases are systematic errors that influence how you think and act. An example could be refusing to listen to the opposing side or being overly influenced by the first piece of information we receive. If unchecked, your cognitive biases can negatively impact your student’s learning experience and may be harmful to them. Understanding your cognitive biases will help you be more empathetic and lead you to make better decisions in your course development.

Practicing empathy is a great way to engage and connect with your learners so that you can be successful in distilling your wisdom. If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the skills you need to be successful in the elearning industry, be sure to attend our 2022 DE&I Minority Business eLearning Summit on Thursday, August 25th at 9 am Pacific Time (US) to learn more about amplifying varied perspectives, imagery, and voices to strengthen your ability to deliver the spark of learning to everyone. 

Register here: bit.ly/elearningsummit2022