Our Online Learners Need More Empathy and Less Criticism

Looking down on girl sitting on floor as she holds coffee cup and puts head in hands in front of computer

I love teaching online. I love the challenge of moving a student from, “I am really nervous about this class!” to “Thank you for your support this semester–I made it!” I love thinking of novel ways to connect with my virtual learners and make them feel cared for and part of a community, even though we will most likely never meet face-to-face. I love being active in removing their roadblocks to achievement.

I also love helping a struggling student make it successfully to the end of a term, like someone coming alongside a marathoner, putting their arm around them, and helping them cross the finish line in a moment of exhaustion or despair.

I admit, though, the online environment can lend itself more often to criticism than to empathy.

If you have ever taught in a residential classroom, bearing the hurts of a student is not terribly difficult when you see the look of anguish on their face and hear the heaviness in their voice over a real-life situation. And when they come to you with a request, it is easier to come alongside them and assist.

But online? The only sign that something may be wrong is that a student does not submit an assignment that week, or they may have been absent from a discussion post. What you may not know is that this student works full-time. They have been mandated to work 60-hour weeks at their job due to COVID and being an essential worker. Perhaps they are caring for an aging parent or have a spouse who has lost their job. Or they may be struggling through the slow process of a dying grandparent. Our students are living in stressful days.

If we are not careful, it is easy to think critical thoughts about our online adult learners when they are not performing well. It is easy to dismiss them and their credibility, thinking the solution is simply to be more disciplined in their work or be more organized in their schedule. I can reach out with a cursory, “I am sorry. Your work is late. There is a 20% penalty to your grade,” and never ask what is going on in their life. I quickly read over their email asking for help, never noticing the timestamp at 4:00 a.m. because they just got back from an overnight work shift. In hearing enough excuses of, “My dog ate my homework,” it is not too difficult to become calloused to the pain that seems virtual to us—out of sight, out of mind.

It is inevitable that I will have students who probably should not be taking a class due to poor life habits. But I would say from experience that most of my online students genuinely want to succeed and are willing to put in the effort.

Has life ever unexpectedly gotten in the way of your plans? It does for our adult learners as well. A tornado passes through their town; COVID has struck their family; a hurricane has forced them to evacuate. It is likely that none of these circumstances were on the horizon when they enrolled in your class.

Our learners are not in need of our criticisms or quick judgments. They do not need our assumptions about the unknown details of their lives. They do not need our labeling of them as a certain type of student. What they desperately need and desire is our identifying with them in their circumstances. They need our empathy. We must feel the weight of their burdens as if they were our own; we must try to place ourselves amid their grief. We must listen, lament with them, and show the care, concern, and love that they might not be getting from anyone else.

Empathy is more than just a response. For empathy to have deep impact, there must first be a relationship of trust—that the student is important to us as their instructor (Fuller 2008). It is the realization that our course is more than mere content; rather it is a platform on which to model life skills that are woefully lacking in our society: empathy, pity, concern, and grace.

Empathy is not just a desire to help; it is a response of action.

John Hattie, in a meta-analysis of over 800 studies on student achievement, concluded that variables of empathy, warmth, and encouragement were all significant factors in impacting the performance of students (“Why Empathy Should Be in Your Virtual Classroom Management Toolbox.” 2020). Yet in the busyness of a large class or our own lives, these can quickly go missing.

There is another piece of this narrative that we must understand: Our life is watched as much in an online classroom as it is in a residence classroom. Our virtual presence is either saying, “I want you to succeed in my class and I am committed to help you!” or our lack of presence is just another frustrating reminder to a student that no one wants to engage in their messy life. I certainly hold my students accountable for their work, but I realize that I must do it in context. I owe it to my students to read between the lines of their emails. I owe it to my students to ask questions of care and concern when I see trigger words that speak to grief, frustration, or sadness. I owe it to my students to teach them more than just what is in my syllabus.

I owe it to them to enter their story and see their circumstances through a lens not my own.

Antone M. Goyak, EdD, currently serves as an associate dean at Bob Jones University’s School for Continuing, Online and Professional Education (SCOPE). He loves the online platform for teaching and learning and enjoys finding techniques that help facilitators build transformational community and presence with their students.


Fuller, Richard D. “11 Practice Priorities to Promote Empathy in Online Classes.” Eastern Illinois University | Official Website | EIU. Last modified February 2008. https://www.eiu.edu/adulted/docs/empathy_online.pdf.

“Why Empathy Should Be in Your Virtual Classroom Management Toolbox.” Learning Management System | LMS | Schoology. Last modified April 21, 2020. https://www.schoology.com/blog/why-empathy-should-be-your-virtual-classroom-management-toolbox.