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Xperts Speak is led by Melissa Akaka, Academic Director at Project X-ITE, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, Co-Director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center, and Elizabeth and Ali Machado Faculty Fellow.

Virginia Pitts speaks about the relationship between empathy and engagement. She also introduces the student-faculty partnership program, which supports students and faculty members in having an open constructive dialogue that can lead to empathy and connection.Watch the video, or read the transcript below. 

Melissa Akaka: Hi, I’m here with Virginia Pitts, the Director of University Teaching at the University of Denver. She comes to us with a wealth of experience in terms of higher education and innovation, not just in the classroom, but also curriculum design, and she is really interested in this notion of engagement. So, I’m wanting to talk to her today to tell us a little bit about the work that she’s been doing, her research interests, and the projects that she’s working on to support both students and teachers in this new learning environment. Virginia, welcome.

Virginia Pitts: Thank you so much, Melissa. It’s great to be here.

Melissa: Thanks so much for being here. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Virginia: I’ve been at the University of Denver for about seven years now. Some years before that, I was getting my PhD at Northwestern University in Learning Sciences where I studied student motivation and engagement. So, I have really been interested in motivation and engagement for a long time, as you mentioned, Melissa. Before that I had an 11-year consulting career with Accenture with Andersen Consulting at the time. And even then, I found myself thinking a lot about engagement and especially when it came to employees at the company that I worked for at the time and the clients that we were working with where we are really focusing on supporting people and making large scale changes. So how do you help people stay engaged and be motivated to continue learning in these environments where we’re experiencing so much change, which is something I find myself thinking a lot about these days. I’ve continued to be so interested in student motivation and engagement. I feel like that’s really a huge key to learning because if we build it, they won’t necessarily come, and if they don’t come, they won’t learn. So that’s where my interest lies these days. As far as innovation goes, when I was in graduate school, I had a professor who was really into design thinking and supported us in thinking about how you can use design thinking as a process for designing learning experiences and curricula. So that’s something I continued to be interested in as well. I was very interested in what it means to bring people together for creative collaborative problem solving. So, that’s something else I think about a lot.

Melissa: That’s fantastic. Currently, higher education is faced with a lot of different types of challenges and even before our current pandemic situation. We were thinking about innovation and innovating in classrooms. What do you think is one of the biggest problems that we face right now in terms of this idea of engagement in classrooms and on campuses?

Virginia: Well, you know, certainly we have been talking a lot about like the challenge of making sure that higher education stays relevant. This challenge with people talking about this potential enrollment cliff or enrollment is going to be potentially dropping off. And so, I think that student engagement is so key and making sure that we create experiences that are meaningful and relevant to the young people of today. I also think, and this is just related to something in general that I find myself observing a lot, in society in general, there’s generally this lack of empathy between an understanding between different groups of people. I think depending on who you talk to, you hear a lot of people say that there’s just a greater feeling of us versus them, whether we’re talking politically, whether we’re talking about other forms of difference or other ways in which people are marginalized and so we talked a lot about this us versus them climate that I feel is getting kind of amped up. And so, I also think that education can really play a role in helping create more understanding and empathy across the difference and that there is just an increasing need for that.

Melissa: What specifically do you think the role is or the relationship is between empathy and engagement?

Virginia: That’s a fantastic question. So I’ll tell you the first answer that comes to mind. But this might evolve as I’m talking. Because I think so much about course design in my work, I think that the more that those of us who are designing our teaching courses can really emphasize with a student experience, the better able we are to design experiences that really engage them. And when I think about engagement – and now you and I have talked about this – I often talk about this notion that there are different forms of engagement. There’s emotional engagement. There’s cognitive engagement. There’s behavioral relational engagement – how are you interacting with others. And I think especially when it comes to emotional engagement that empathy piece is key. Because if you really understand people’s unspoken needs and motivations and aspirations and desires, it’s much easier to build experiences that really connect to that. I think there’s actually a really strong connection between the two of them when it comes to creating learning experiences.

Melissa: And you are currently working on a program that connects students and faculty or instructors that begins to address this idea of empathy across these two roles. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Virginia: So it’s a student-faculty partnership program. And this is the fourth year that I’ve been facilitating it. What the program does is it pairs up students and faculty members for a quarter, so students apply, faculty members apply. Just at the heart of it, a student will observe the faculty partners class each week of the quarter, and they’ll take really detailed observation notes – just something they notice and how they’re responding as a student. So, it’s not intended to be evaluative, but more to students sharing what their reaction is as a student to the different things that have happened to class, and then they’ll meet with our faculty partner each week, and they will talk with each other about their shared observations and experiences of the course. And then the student groups meet with each other during the week as well. The students talk about what they’re learning and support each other in actually doing the work, and I get the gift of getting to facilitate those student group experiences. So the whole program is premised on the idea that students and faculty members have so much to learn from each other about the experience of teaching and learning, and there’s several goals of the program, but the one that I think connects most to what we’re talking about is that one of the goals of the program is really to support students and faculty members in having this open constructive dialogue that can really lead to empathy and connection and community and understanding, and what’s been amazing is to see how the program really does contribute to that because it really is fostering this different kind of relationship between students and faculty members that can act as the foundation for students and faculty members to talk together about what we’re learning about learning and about how we can improve learning and engagement for all of us.

Melissa: Can you tell us about an outcome that has come about because of these relationships with these interactions that might provide evidence that there is empathy learning happening here?

Virginia: Well, students and faculty members will talk about that explicitly. Every year when I do this, in addition to getting to meet with students, at the end of the experience, I will invite students and faculty partners, just to talk about what the experience was like and what they got out of it. Talking to the students, almost without exception, one of the first things I’ll say is, “so what did you learn from this experience or what did you get out of it?” [And they’ll say] “I understand what it’s like to be a faculty member better. I have so much more empathy for all of my faculty members because of this experience.” They talk about how they learn how challenging it is to teach, about the tradeoffs that their professors are constantly grappling with when they teach, about all the pressures that their faculty members are facing, not just from what it is to teach, but other aspects of their work. And faculty members, say the same thing. So, they talked about how much more they not only understand the student perspective, but how participating in this really can make them be more attuned to or curious about how students are experiencing their class.

And this quarter in particular, it’s been, I think, really, really important work. So, I’ve always talked about these benefits that come out of it in the previous quarters. But this quarter, in particular when we’re online, when I think faculty members are feeling, perhaps more distant, more separated, they’re physically separated, right, [and] we’re physically separated from students. Many faculty members are being invited to teach in a way that they have never experienced themselves as a student. And we’re all experiencing this pandemic in different ways. So I know how I’m experiencing it. I know how my colleagues are experiencing it, but then our students are also experiencing this pandemic, and so having a chance to really connect with some of our students on a regular basis and understand how they’re experiencing all of this, I think, has been invaluable. In addition, it also, it also gives the students and faculty members a chance to have a connection with each other. I know students have talked about how valuable that is, but the faculty members, too. I was just chatting with one of the partners the other day who was saying how wonderful it is to know that there is a student there with them, who has her back, so that I feel like my student partner really has my back. And that, I think makes all the difference in this really challenging time.

Melissa: So, fantastic. So if faculty or students want to get involved, what should they do?

Virginia: Well, hopefully, we’ll be offering the program again next year. I certainly believe it’s more important now than ever before. We would love to be able to grow it certainly. They can reach out to me to let me know that they’re interested.

I think one of the things we have to continue figuring out is the funding model for this going forward. One really important aspect of this is that students actually get compensated for their time. So they’re not doing this voluntarily. The thing is that their experience as a student is really valuable. So just as any of our time would be if we were doing consulting work. They really are student consultants, and so as we move forward, and as I think all of us are making really challenging decisions about where we invest in higher education, we’ve got to figure out how to make this sustainable. So, if people have ideas for that to everyone, I welcome input.

Melissa: My final question to take this more broadly in terms of actionable outcomes of this conversation is if we can’t participate in the specific program, can you give us some thoughts on how we can as faculty or students or community members or anyone who’s really associated with higher education more broadly contribute to this solution of the problem that we face with this lack of empathy and increasing engagement?

Virginia: I think it is just being intentional and asking students what their experience is like. And it goes beyond just asking for input. So I was thinking about this in terms of my dissertation work. So I mentioned a student motivation and engagement and project-based curricula. That work involved interviewing students about what their experience was like. We have all these theories about why students learn better with project-based curriculum, but I was interested in whether they really bought in. Through being asked to solve a problem, do you really care about the problem are you really putting yourself in and the role you’re asked to put yourself in? What I found is that there was quite a range of ways in which students experienced this. I never would have known that if I hadn’t asked them what their experience was like. If I just had asked them: Do you think this is a valuable experience? Are you learning much from it? How should I change it? I would have learned a lot. But actually, really understanding about what their experience was like would allow people to continue innovating and tweaking that experience to make it better. So, all that to say I think just being willing to ask students what their experience of the classroom is like, and to listen to them because they are right there in front of us. I think so often when we’re in person, we act like we’re physically separated, but still figuring out ways to just increase that dialogue, I think is key.

Melissa: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. I think you have provided a lot of insight into a really specific and important problem when it comes to engagement in higher education generally speaking, but also my guess is around all kinds of different types of interactions, and those of us who seek to increase engagement could definitely benefit from thinking a little bit more empathetically about who we’re trying to engage with. And I love that you’re having this program that brings students and faculty together and have some really interesting insights on just kind of overall learning and engagement. So, thank you for your time.

Virginia: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

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