Capacity Building and Empathy in Service Learning

    Posted: January 3, 2017

    It is increasingly becoming an imperative in higher education for practitioners to educate their students on more holistic levels, and to equip them with skills related to global citizenship. International service-learning is structured around providing students with global competencies that impact both the individual and the collective. As a pedagogy, it seeks to engage students in quality, practical learning that will aid them in their personal and professional development. It also seeks to integrate components of experiential and transformative learning into our collective future, by integrating community development into its curriculum.

          Further Reading: 4 Outcomes of Transformative Learning and How to Achieve Them

    The more widely discussed skills associated with service-learning encompass interpersonal forms of capacity-building. These skills include: teaching students tolerance and respect for others, collaboration, teamwork and cooperation, leadership and responsibility, active listening, and effective communication. What is less discussed is the importance of intrapersonal capacity-building, or the characteristics of teaching ethical competencies, self-awareness, and empathy.


    The Importance of Empathy

    Empathy is largely understood as the ability to understand another’s pain, and to consider the complexity of issues behind another person’s perspective. By building empathy in our students, we strengthen their ability to have an interconnected worldview, and to understand that every action we make impacts something or someone else.

    In relation to classroom management, we want our students to feel comfortable being vulnerable, and to feel at home in their own perspective (which can at times be emotionally charged), while also being able to listen to others. If we can help students learn how to retain control over their internal, emotional realities, while still being able to consider controversial or alternate viewpoints, then we can create more collaborative learning environments.

          Further Reading: Enhancing Democratic Engagement in Service Learning Courses

    Teaching empathy is, in some ways, deconstructing the heart. It puts us more in tune with our own emotions, how to process and understand them, so we can then relate to others’ emotional reality more readily and effectively. This is especially significant in cultural settings, where a plethora of other complex factors are at play.

    Dorothy Ettling describes this process of empathy-building as primarily rooted in developing ethical capacities in students. She describes these as  “competencies [gained] from the practice of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual rigor [which] can offer us grounding and guidance in our everyday practice of transformative learning.”


    Building empathy in our students will inevitably provide them with more flexibility in gaining other skills associated with leadership, teamwork, and intercultural competency. This all begins with teaching students how to understand and accept the validity of others’ experiences in tandem with their own.

          Further Reading: How to Promote Global Leadership in the Classroom 

    Looking Forward

    Advances in technology alone mean that the world will continue along a dynamic, ever-changing path. As educators we want to encourage students to think of themselves as adaptable creators or inventors who are empathetic, flexible, and who take initiative. Among the critical capacities associated with service-learning courses, empathy is one of the most significant.

    Enhancing empathetic qualities in our students will give them the ability to navigate complexities and to build and sustain a more peaceful world. In tandem with other competencies, including interpersonal skills and cognitive adaptability, this will enable students to analyze and interpret their experiences as global actors.

          Further reading:  Defining Critical Reflection


    Building these interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities is critical not only for student success in the professional sphere, but also for the future of our global community. We want to position students and communities to learn, and thrive from, our globalized world, and to find human commonalities from which we can all grow.


    For further reading, please see: 

    Ettling, D. (2006). Ethical demands of transformative learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 109, 59-67.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.