This professor’s group interaction project helps independent-minded honors students become more capable as leaders and as teammates.
Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Honors, John V. Roach Honors College, Texas Christian University
MA in English (Baylor), PhD in English and Certificate in Women’s Studies (TCU)
Dr. Wendy Williams has a very personal reason for teaching her students about empathy: She knows what it means to feel like an outsider.
Williams’s first teaching job was at a university in Japan, and while immersion in a foreign culture was remarkable, it was also fraught with challenges and emotions. The experience strengthened her ability to feel empathy, and it gave her a sense of the importance of teaching empathy as a way to develop that awareness in others.
Williams’s interest in empathy deepened while she was researching her book, George Eliot, Poetess (Routledge, 2014). After writing a chapter on Eliot’s belief in the sacredness of “sympathetic relations,” she was inspired to create an entire course on the subject.
Now an associate professor in Texas Christian University’s Honors College, Williams combines her many passions—education, empathy, and nineteenth-century British literature—in the creation of her courses for honors students. Williams uses a unique approach that happens to build empathy, but her further goals are to build leadership and collaboration skills among students. The result? The creation of a classroom community that leaves no student feeling left out.
Challenge: Independent-minded students who need to collaborate
Without exception, Williams’s honors students are highly motivated self-starters. That motivation sets them apart—and also separates them from other students.
At the beginning of the semester, Williams asks her students, “How many of you like group work?” Not a hand goes up. Then she asks, “Who doesn’t like group work because they’re always the person doing all the work?” Every hand goes up.
Still, Williams knows that these students will need to collaborate in their professional lives. “Students must learn to communicate, collaborate, and interact professionally with others in the workplace, and the classroom is a good place to practice those skills,” she notes.
Williams realized that, for students to be as successful collaboratively as they are individually, they need to be introduced to the right tools and experiences.
Innovation: Finding a way to facilitate discussions
Williams developed a “discussion facilitation assignment,” which is a core requirement of all of her courses. Its purpose is to foster collaboration skills while also enabling students to take on leadership roles in a group setting.
“Each week, we strive to make sense of the topic by making connections between theoretical ideas and real-life experiences,” says Williams. Then students are tasked with working in groups, taking on individual roles and responsibilities. The assignment culminates in a detailed, dynamic 80-minute discussion that engages the entire class.
“I want students not only to theorize and talk about empathy but also to look at themselves and find out who they are and who they want to be. I’m not necessarily trying to make them more empathic. Rather, I want them to become more self-aware and more aware of other people, especially people with experiences unlike theirs.”— Wendy Williams, PhD
Frequency: Two 80-minute class meetings per week
Class size: 12
Course description: In this seminar, students explore and experience empathy in its individual, interpersonal, and civic modes. Readings in literature, psychology, sociology, and philosophy supplement students’ semester-long service-learning projects (12 hours of service with a local community partner). Through discussion of readings and service-learning experiences, we work collaboratively to develop a coherent theory and practical understanding of empathy.
See teaching resources for HCOL 40033-645 Nature of Values: EmpathySee materials
Lesson: Williams’s discussion facilitation assignment
One of the driving aspects of honors pedagogy, Williams says, is student-directed or student-led learning. For example, her Empathy course is largely self-directed and experiential, and it includes a 12-hour service project with a local community partner.
That said, Williams sets expectations early in the course and outlines exactly what students need to do to succeed—for the course overall, and especially for the discussion facilitation assignment. Here is how she does it.
Show them you understand their struggles
When beginning the discussion facilitation assignment, the greatest challenge Williams finds is her students’ attitude about group work. Their feelings are “I’m only doing this because I have to.”
In order to get them past that idea, she talks with the class on the first day and acknowledges that group work is frustrating, especially for honors students. In this way, they know she is aware of their feelings—that she has experienced them herself and understands the challenges they have faced.
Offer more guidance than you think they will need
Williams has learned over many semesters that the more detail and information she can give students about her expectations early in the class, the better they will do. “They don’t like ambiguity,” she says. “They want to know exactly what they have to do.” So she goes over what is expected of them for the discussion facilitation assignment, and she lists the requirements clearly in the syllabus. She also offers extensive in-person and email help and works to keep students informed throughout the course.
Get them teamed up—and make sure they own it
Rather than assigning students to a group, Williams tells them the various presentation deadlines and allows students to choose their team accordingly. To build in accountability, Williams makes sure they begin by making some initial agreements. She asks them to consider what being in a group means to them, write down their answers, and then share them with their teammates. They also share what each of them will commit to in order to make their group successful. That way they develop a mutual understanding before they dive into their project.
Use discord as impetus to build empathy
Williams tells students that if something goes wrong in their groups—especially if someone is not fulfilling their role—they should contact her so they can solve the problem together. She uses those occasions as opportunities to teach empathy, asking students to put themselves in another’s shoes and understand the issues they might be facing.
Provide feedback in a timely and detailed manner
“The professor’s interaction with student groups is crucial to success,” says Williams. “Students send me their slides on Friday by 11 a.m., and I respond in great detail regarding formatting, question formulation, and active learning strategies. This behind-the-scenes work is what makes this assignment successful.”
Engage everyone equally and respectfully
Each group’s in-class discussion session is required to involve and engage all students, not just the most talkative. The discussion itself must be based in the Socratic method, which focuses on asking and answering questions to evoke ideas and uncover hidden presumptions—and it must involve every student in class.
To that end, groups must pose thought-provoking, open-ended questions (no lectures, and no reading slides) and keep the conversation on topic. Group leaders are encouraged to affirm comments, challenge civilly when appropriate, and engage class members with respect—just as they have learned to treat their teammates with respect.
Over the course of the semester, Williams typically sees that students become more willing to listen to and acknowledge others’ ideas and feelings, and they are better able to express their own. The Socratic method used in class—and their time working on the facilitation with their teammates and with her—helps them become more aware of their own preconceptions and supports their engagement in group settings.
In answers to survey questions given at the end of the course, students have expressed their appreciation for the discussion facilitation assignment:
“Really helpful to see how much in-depth analysis one can put together for the discussion facilitation.”
“I gained valuable skills needed in order to work with a group effectively.”
“I gained the ability to confidently present and speak for a more extended period of time than previously before. I also gained more experience working with a group.”
“It was really useful to learn how to present complex information and facilitate an open and respectful discussion.”
“I actually gained a lot. It was awesome to learn how to present in front of a group for an extended period of time like that (over an hour) and actually focus on knowing the material I was teaching rather memorizing a presentation. This really allowed me to be comfortable as a presenter and master the material.”