Teaching Empathy

by Alice Jensen

As a nursing professor, I teach empathy in psychosocial nursing by incorporating music, art, short stories, poetry, and film in the classroom. Students in psychosocial nursing gain the opportunity to appreciate how mental illness permeates life in the United States and begin to understand mental illness through the experiences of real or fictionalized people. Two research studies that I conducted and disseminated about this approach can be found here and here.

In some cases, I choose the music to fuel empathetic thought processes, but at times, students bring music to me. With a “think, pair, and share” approach, students begin to listen to their favorite music with new ears. Examples of music include: Unwell by Matchbox Twenty, Lithium by Nirvana, Whiskey Lullaby by Brad Paisley, I am a Rock by Simon & Garfunkel, and Sullen Girl by Fiona Apple. I often use the same “think, pair, and share” approach with familiar artistic images, including works by Picasso, Munch, Dali, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Degas, “The Plum”

Analysis of a movie, book, or visual images can incorporate the major concepts of the course and provide students the opportunity to bring it all together related to a real or fictionalized character. We all analyze A Beautiful Mind as a group before students choose a move or book themselves from an approved list. (Click here for my syllabus for N302 Psychosocial Nursing as well as specific assignments that help students develop empathy)

Because students in psychosocial nursing have a clinical component that exposes them to hospitalized clients with mental illness, this empathetic element is very important for students to consider. Students work with adolescents, adults, and geriatric clients with varying degrees of illness and substance abuse. Here students often experience the feeling of “There but for the grace of God go I,” meaning that we are all at the mercy of our environment and our genetics.

Can you assess empathy? Yes. There are available survey tools for those with a strictly quantitative bend. But I have found the qualitative method to be quite effective. Please see the research articles on the TLC page if you are interested in the depth and breadth of student responses (PowerPointCaring conf presentation).

An effective short assignment has been to write a critical incident reflection for the last day of clinical:

  • “Think of a specific event from your clinical experience in psychosocial nursing which
    was a highlight or even a low point.
  • Describe the experience in detail (without names).
  • What did you learn from this experience and how did it reveal what psychosocial nursing is all about?
  • What are your feelings about this event and how do your feelings influence your nursing care?
  • How did this experience live up to your expectations or did it challenge existing assumptions about psychiatric clients?”

When I read these reflection responses, more often than not, I find evidence of newfound empathy.


Alice Jensen is a Professor of Nursing in the College of Health Professions at Maryville University. Find out more about her here.