Skip to main content

To my students...please know that as your lecturer I care about you: the importance of compassionate pedagogy

09 Jul 2024 | Dr Clare Killingback Dr Clare Killingback, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy and a Fellow for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Hull, discusses compassionate pedagogy and "thinking about our disciplinary contexts and reflecting on our practice through a compassionate lens."

If there is one thing I want my students to know it is that I care about them. I genuinely have great affection for them; I want them to succeed, I want them to be the best they can possibly be, I want them to carry dreams in their hearts that they go on to realise, I want them to grow and develop and learn and never stop being curious about the world. This realisation of my affection for them became apparent to me during a singular classroom interaction. 

This encounter happened in a research module, where my second-year physiotherapy students were working on a task I’d allocated them to consider what physiotherapy students should do to prepare for their roles as qualified practitioners. One particular group had chosen to focus on the importance of mental wellbeing. I will readily admit that my students are much better than me at being open and talking about mental wellbeing and this was a topic they were passionate about. This passion stemmed from their experiences on hospital placements where they had met newly qualified physiotherapists who were on the verge of quitting because things were so tough - short staffed, high workload, under resourced, bureaucracy etc., a scenario echoed in the news. They were determined to understand how they could navigate the mental pressures of a demanding profession so that they wouldn’t abandon a career they love after years of training. 

As I circulated among the groups, eager to learn about their progress, this particular group shared their findings. They had found the quote from the Office for National Statistics data in the United Kingdom revealing lower levels of wellbeing, especially anxiety, among the undergraduate student population. The data they collected from their peers for this assignment echoed these challenges. Witnessing their struggles hit me hard, and in that moment, I realised how deeply I cared about them.  

In my typical academic fashion, I delved into the literature on supporting student wellbeing, leading me to the concept of a compassionate curriculum. While universities offer excellent wellbeing services, they are most often separate from pedagogic practice. The argument for including mental wellbeing in the curriculum and adopting a compassionate pedagogy – actively addressing distress and disadvantage in the learning environment – is gaining momentum.  

Compassion emerged as a prevailing theme during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conversations with my students underscored that compassion must remain at the forefront of our academic practice. It also surprised me - that even I, as someone who tries to take a student-centred and inclusive approach to my practice in training those for the helping and caring professions, didn’t quite show my students what care and compassion looked like.  

Compassion is distinct from empathy and sympathy because it involves a response – an acknowledgment and turning towards suffering. It requires courage and strength. And so, I am left with a choice. I can walk away from that student research group who tell me about how poor their mental wellbeing is with my heavy heart. Then I can head back to my office to wade through the barrage of emails, and tasks to do as part of my day job which have landed on my desk in the time that I’ve been in the classroom. Alternatively, I can reflect further on what the problem is and do my best to respond.  

I have chosen to pursue a call to action; to seek to enhance my practice to be more compassionate, to be more aware of distress in my students in the classroom and beyond but also in a pre-emptive manner - after all, when I think about it seriously, I know where the same pinch points of challenge are for my students year-on-year so is there anything I can do to minimise this distress. This is not an exhaustive list but these are some examples of the compassionate changes I have made based on what students have told me is important to them: 

  • I let my students know that I recognise the pressures they are facing with many of them needing to work alongside studying full-time. 
  • I am more mindful of the tone of my emails and personalising as relevant.  
  • I now teach compassionate communication skills as part of my modules with group assessments. This helps students in being compassionate with each other and with their clients and colleagues in professional practice. 
  • I explicitly ask my students how they are doing with their wellbeing at the peak pressure point in my research module. 
  • I do not shy away from those difficult conversations with students when they have faced challenging situations in clinical practice which have upset them. 
  • I organise optional drop-in sessions for my personal tutees just before exam season when they may need a little more support.  

I share these examples to highlight that compassionate pedagogy does not mean I am advocating that we all become counsellors as well as lecturers. Rather, I raise the question to myself of how I integrate compassion genuinely in the metricised, neo-liberal climate that is higher education these days? I am not sure I have the answers to this yet – but what I have learned is that we need to listen to our students, take their mental wellbeing seriously, and find touch points in the curriculum to support their wellbeing and respond to distress. I need to be mindful that students are people who have complex lives with multiple challenges, (very similar to my own life), and they are often doing it in the midst of studying full-time and often working part-time with concerns about debt and living away from home. I am trying to pay attention to my students and the learning and teaching environment through the lens of compassion.  

When I talk to some colleagues about compassionate pedagogy I get push back: “this is not part of my job” or “seriously, this is another thing I have to do now”. However, the changes I have made have not necessarily taken much more of my time. But they have called for a change in thinking about how I approach my practice, which includes making sure I am mindful of my boundaries and practice some self-compassion so that I don’t get compassion fatigue. I also firmly believe that compassionate pedagogy does not mean alleviating all distress in a learning context; learning is about growth and stretching and that can be uncomfortable but a necessary part of our development. But it’s about the elements of distress that can be a real disadvantage for students.  

Compassionate pedagogy can’t be a one size fits all approach. How a compassionate learning environment is realised in a healthcare programme will look different to how it is realised in law, business, politics, chemistry, history, languages, the arts etc. And that’s where I see value in us thinking about our disciplinary contexts and reflecting on our practice through a compassionate lens. I offer the following questions as a starting point:  

  1. Where do I notice distress in my students and what steps can I take to address these barriers to learning?  
  2. Where are the common challenges I notice in my programme or module that come up year-on-year and what pre-emptive steps can I take to address these?  

But it’s not all bad, it’s also about celebrating where there is already compassion taking place and as I have begun to have conversations with students about this, they tell me stories where they have acted with compassion in both a healthcare setting with patients, and with their student peers to support one another.  

In closing, I circle back to where this began – to my students. Know that as a teaching team, we care deeply about you. We strive to offer the best support, acknowledging that we may not always get this right. Yet, rest assured, it’s never for lack of trying. We are committed to working with you, always trying to improve our approaches to make sure your journey to graduation is as fulfilling as possible and is more than just filling your head with knowledge, but about helping you grow as a whole person. 

Dr Clare Killingback is a Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy and a Fellow for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Hull. She is passionate about shaping the future of physiotherapy through innovative teaching methods and committed to fostering excellence and creating compassionate learning environments.  

Improve student belonging in your institution with our Change Impact Programme 

Our refreshed Building Belonging Change Impact programme now features additional access to a fully interactive framework for student needs. Our programme is offered entirely online, blending live expert-led workshops with accompanying digital content to take at your own pace. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter