Affirming the profession of social educator, one who is best suited to mediate human relationships, requires an investment in training to improve the (inter)personal development of students, thereby contributing to a professional profile able to face the complex challenges of contemporary society. Research into developing empathy, a core variable in exercising of social-educational support functions, should be invested in by educational institutions. In this context, the aim of this study is to identify the students’ perceptions of empathy in two higher education institutions in Portugal and to see how they vary according to academic year, gender and age, in order to understand the implications for training and outline strategies to promote (inter)personal development. It is a non-experimental, cross-sectional study, for which the Portuguese adaptation (
Keywords: “Social Education”“empathy”“training”“personal development”
The emergence of social education is warranted by the increase in problems related to social exclusion and by the need to provide effective social responses. The nature of more paternalistic assistance intervention strategies have shown to be ineffective and reinforce dependency and maintaining cycles of poverty and psychosocial risk. In addition, the development of theoretical frameworks and research have culminated in the advent of paradigms and action models which differ from the conventional ones (Carvalho & Baptista, 2004). In this sense, social education has come to occupy an important place in the context of the social sciences and education, consolidating scientific and technical developments which, for some time, have been energizing and growing, currently acquiring a scientific robustness that, at this stage, is worth clarifying and reflecting, looking ahead to the following stages of development.
Thus, social education is situated in a professional space, anchored at the interface between the social and educational areas (Díaz, 2006). This brings it some difficulty in affirming its professional identity. Placed in the field of social action dealing with individuals and groups who are more socially fragile, social education differs from social service by the pedagogical character of its references and intervention models and formats (Carvalho, 2008).
In recent decades, we have noticed an evolution of social education. The traditional approach, fundamentally practical and intuitive and focused on solving concrete and immediate problems, was shown to be unable to respond effectively to complex social realities. Therefore, current social educators require a thoughtful and systematic approach: knowing how to read social reality and knowing how to interpret individuals and contexts (Bargallóa & Martin, 2014; Ribeiro, 2013). With the aid of conceptual pedagogical tools, they require educators to be able to know how to deal with increasing social and cultural complexity. Among the skills that educators should develop, we emphasize (inter)personal skills, particularly, the ability to empathize; that is, being able to see, feel and demonstrate to the individuals and groups with whom they work, their unconditional support.
The social educator, as a social, cultural and educational mediator (Moyano, 2012) is highly reflective and should be able to understand the people and groups in their various socio-educational intervention contexts, in order to enhance their personal and social development, their integration and participation in the community and in the assorted socio-cultural spaces (Calvo, 2012).
The social educator’s skills
Accrediting social education professionals from a reflexive perspective (Bargallóa & Martin, 2014) needs a (re)frameworking of their training and socio-educational practice. Educational institutions need to (re)equate their syllabi and training strategies to train more competent professionals due to the challenges today's society faces.
The proposal to develop training should be structured around the skills required for efficient action (Zabala & Arnau, 2007). In this regard, training social educators should enhance core skills to practice the profession that, according to the International Association of Social Educators, the AIEJI (2008), involve key professional skills related to the different levels of how to act, intervene, evaluate and reflect in the contexts of professional practice. The educator, starting from conceptual, procedural and attitudinal contents (Zabala & Arnau, 2014) should be able to intervene directly in situations and circumstances, responding to the needs and potentialities of individuals and groups.
Moreover, the social educator’s training should promote personal, relational/interpersonal and social core skills (AIEJI, 2008), which are the educator’s main aptitudes. The relationship established with children, adolescents or adults in distress and socially fragile situations must be based on a culture of solidarity, justice, respect and participation in all in their life contexts. The training should promote the inclusion of people supporting, respecting their social and cultural values. This requires a high level of sensitivity and civic and ethical conscience, as well as a sense of responsibility and social and communication skills (AIEJI, 2008).
Knowing that most educational work is collaborative and is carried out within a network of formal and informal social support, we stress the importance of interpersonal skills to understand and know how to communicate with others with authenticity, so that there is mutual understanding (Zabala & Arnau, 2014).
The role of empathy in the social educator’s professionalism
In this context, we emphasize the ability to empathize within the social educator’s professionalism. Empathy is a complex multidimensional construct that includes different dimensions of an affective and cognitive nature. Davis (1980, 1983) states it is related to aspects of the individual’s reaction as an observer of someone else's experiences.
Among the various definitions presented in the scientific literature, empathy can be defined as a shared emotional response, in which an individual observes and listens to someone else, understands their perspective and experience, feels their feelings and actions, expresses their understanding, respects and supports (Gano-Overway, 2013; Shanafelt et al., 2005). It also involves the notion of the individual’s responsiveness with regard to others (Decety & Jackson, 2004).
Essentially, empathy is a phenomenon that encompasses cognitive and affective features. The cognitive component of empathy is related to the individual’s ability to understand other personal perspectives; the affective component is linked to the tendency to respond emotionally to the feelings experienced by others (Shanafelt et al., 2005). Notwithstanding the existence of both different dimensions, Davis (1980) states that they work in an interdependent system and that research which studies only one dimension to the exclusion of the other is artificial. In contrast, Hojat (2009) says that empathy is an eminently cognitive attribute involving the ability to understand the perspectives and experiences of others, as well as the ability to convey acceptance to them.
The scientific literature in the field, based mostly on students in the health field, asserts that empathy is related to gender (Chakrabarti & Baron-Cohen, 2006; Davis, 1980, 1983; Gano-Overway, 2013). Girls tend to show higher levels of empathy (Davis, 1980; Gano-Overway, 2013; Han, Fan, & Mao, 2008; Kavussanu, Stamp, Slade, & Ring, 2009) and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg, 2005).
The studies also showed that empathy is related to personality traits (Magalhães, Costa & Costa, 2012), social skills and prosocial behaviours (Eisenberg, 2005; McMahon, Wernsman, & Parnes, 2006) and a strong association with well-being (Shanafelt et al., 2005; Wei, Liao, Ku, & Shaffer, 2011), particularly in the Perspective Taking subscale (cognitive dimension of empathy).
With regard to the theoretical framework of the approach to empathy, it can be conceptualized as a stable constitutional trait, or from the approach that perceives empathy as a phenomenon that can change over time, consisting of constitutional features that interact with the contingencies of the social context (Paro et al., 2014).
In line with this latter perspective, education and experiences have an important effect on the development of empathy, which has been shown in studies which reported empathy was related to academic year (Kataoka, Koide, Ochi, Hojat, & Gonnella, 2009). However, studies have not always been shown to be consistent; some suggest stagnation (Costa, Magalhães, & Costa, 2013) or regression (Neumann et al., 2011), requiring greater investment in research.
It is within this framework that higher learning institutions with training in social education should reflect on their syllabi, methodologies and training strategies, questioning the extent to which they are training competent and effective professionals, enhancing their professional, social and (inter)personal skills. It is important to know the effect of challenging and collaborative educational practices in stimulating learning environments (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), the attendance of extracurricular programmes and activities, involvement in academic activities, and the relationships with teachers and among peers (Astin, 2003; Kunh, 2009; Pascarella, 2006).
Today, much is discussed about the necessary reforms around the teacher’s role in promoting students’ social skills, especially those associated with empathy, which has become a leading topic in the discourse of global higher education policy. It is important to think about changing teaching practices, from a more traditional transmissive form of teaching, to more student centred pedagogical approaches which will promote students’ social learning, including the development of prosocial skills, especially empathy (English, 2016).
Our aim is to ascertain the perception of empathy in undergraduate social education students in two institutions, and in particular, to understand the influence of sociodemographic variables (gender and age), academic year. We will reflect on the results with a perspective for possible training implications.
We posed the following questions: What is the influence of the students’ institution, academic year, age and gender on the overall and partial results of empathy? What implications can be determined for training in social education?
Purpose of the Study
Our purpose is to identify the perceptions of empathy of students attending the Degree in Social Education programme in two higher education institutions in Portugal and to apprehend the effect of the following variables: academic year, gender and age, in order to understand the implications for training and/or strategies to promote (inter)personal development in students.
This is a non-experimental and cross-sectional study.
The study used a non-probabilistic and convenience sample whose characteristics can be seen in Table
The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI, Davis, 1980, 1983) was used in the study. A short questionnaire was also added with sociodemographic questions (gender, age, academic year, place of residence). Using Davis’s 28-item IRI (1980) was warranted as it is one of the most widely used scales to assess empathy. It is based on a multidimensional approach to empathy, consisting of a cognitive and emotional dimension, described by its relationship with measurements of personal and social functioning, emotion and sensitivity to others (Davis, 1980, 1983). The Portuguese version (Limpo, Alves, & Castro, 2010) consists of 24 items: statements about thoughts and feelings that the person may or may not have experienced, answered on a 5-point Likert scale (0 = “It does not describe me well.” 4 = “It describes me very well.”). It is organized in four subscales with items 7 each. Its scores may range from 0 to 24, evaluating different faces construct: the Perspective Taking subscale measures the ability to adopt others’ point of view; the Empathic Concern subscale assesses the feelings of sympathy, compassion and concern for others; the Personal Distress subscale measures personal feelings of personal anxiety and apprehension in tense social environments, especially when witnessing the negative experiences of others; the Fantasy subscale assesses the tendency of individuals to imagine themselves in fictitious situations, identifying with the actions and feelings of characters from movies, novels and books. The cognitive dimension is measured by the Perspective Taking subscale and the affective dimension by the other three subscales.
The instruments were applied in the classroom, in the months of May and June 2017. Rules of ethics pertaining to research project of this type were fully complied with. The participants were informed about the purpose of the study and that their participation was strictly voluntary with the confidentiality and anonymity of responses assured. They were also provided any necessary clarifications during application.
Data analysis techniques
Statistical analyses were performed using the
In terms of internal consistency, the Cronbach’s Alpha values are acceptable and for the subscales Perspective Taking and Fantasy the values were found to be close to those of the IRI scale’s author (Davis, 1980); however, they were lower in other subscales. Thus, for the overall IRI (24 items), the value was α=.73 and for the subscales the values were as follows: Perspective Taking subscale (6 items)/ cognitive dimension, α=.74; Empathic Concern (6 items), α=.67; Personal Distress (6 items), α=.61; Fantasy (6 items), α=.73. As for the affective dimension (3 subscales 18 items), the value was α=.74.
We analysed the preliminary descriptive statistics (Mean and Standard Deviation) of the empathy subscales (IRI) and compared the results with studies which had adapted the IRI in Portugal (Limpo et al., 2010) and Spain (Pérez-Albéniz, Paúl, Etxeberría, Montes, & Torres, 2003), where the samples used were also higher education students. As shown in Table
We performed inferential analyses and used the Mann-Whitney
The results regarding empathy, IRI and the subscales, by gender, as shown in Table
These results are consistent with most national and international studies (Costa et al., 2013; Davis, 1980; Gano-Overway, 2013; Han et al., 2008; Limpo et al., 2010; Kavussanu et al., 2009).
No statistical differences were found in the overall and partial values of empathy between the age categories, ≤21 years and >21 years, in the global IRI (
Research on the effect of age on the development of empathy have not received much attention from researchers (Lennon & Eisenberg, 1987); moreover, they are inconsistent. The literature reports that in some studies there were no significant differences in empathy in relation to age, but others reported differences in which older adults show less empathy than younger ones (Grühn, Rebucal, Diehl, Lumley, & Labouvie-Vief, 2008). Similarly, Pinho, Fernandes and Falcone (2011) found a negative correlation between age and altruism and a positive correlation with affective sensitivity (empathy components).
Regarding the effect of academic year, on empathy, as presented in Table
The scores for the affective empathy subscale indicate that students have developed this aspect of empathy during their training. These results are not convergent with other studies in the health field, particularly in medical training, where cognitive and affective aspects did not improve over the period of the course (Paro et al., 2014).
With reference to the aims of this study, its results contribute to the reflection on empathy and lead us to implications in terms of training of students of social education. In short, we highlight the findings relating to the differences in empathy by gender and academic year. Female students showed better scores in the affective dimension of empathy, despite not finding the same effect on the cognitive component (Perspective Taking). Similarly, students in the 3rd year revealed higher scores in the affective dimension (Empathic Concern subscale). Given what has been laid out above, it is necessary to promote empathy, with particular attention to its cognitive component, that is, the ability of individuals to understand other personal perspectives.
Thus, it is important to think about changing teaching practices from more transmissive teaching to an approach more focused on the student, promoting collaborative learning (English, 2016). To this end, the teacher must create stimulating learning environments (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), with an enabling environment for cooperation among students (Gano-Overway, 2013), that encourages participation and the sharing of perspectives and different points of view. Spaces, conducive to promoting social and interpersonal skills should also be created, with the establishment of extracurricular programmes and activities, as well as involvement in academic activities and relationships with teachers and among peers (Astin, 2003; Pascarella, 2006).
Despite the contribution of this study to better understanding the development of empathy in social education students throughout their training, further studies are needed with larger samples and longitudinal methodologies.
We wish to thank the Centre for Studies in Education, Technologies and Health (CI&DETS) of the Viseu Polytechnic Institute, Portugal.
- Astin, A. W. (2003). Studying how college affects students: A personal history of the CIRP. About Campus, 8(3), 21‑28.
- Bargalló, G. R., & Martín, J. V. (2014). La praxis reflexiva un reto para la Educación Social. Edetania: estudios y propuestas socio-educativas, 45, 129-144.
- Brock, C., & Salinsky, J. (1993). Empathy: an essential skill for understanding the physician-patient relationships in clinical pratice. Family Medicine, 25(4), 245-248.
- Carvalho, A., & Baptista, I. (2004). Educação Social: fundamentos e estratégias. Porto: Porto Editora.
- Chakrabarti, B., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). Empathizing: Neurocognitive developmental mechanisms. Progress in Brain Research, 156, 403-417.
- Choi, D., Minote, N., Sekiya, T., & Watanuki, S. (2016). Relationships between trait empathy and psychological well-being in Japanese University students. Psychology, 7, 1240-1247.
- Costa, P., Magalhães, E., & Costa, M. J. (2013) A latent growth model suggests that empathy of medical students does not decline over time. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 18(3), 509-522.
- Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.
- Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual diferences in empathy. JSAS Catalogo Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.
- Eisenberg, N. (2005). The development of empathy-related responding. In G. Carlo & C. P. Edwards (Eds.), Moral motivation through the life span (pp. 73-117). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- English, A. R. (2016). John Dewey and the role of the teacher in a globalized world: imagination, empathy, and ‘third voice’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 48 (10), 1046-1064.
- Fields, S. K., Mahan, P., Tillman, P., Harris, J., Maxwell, K., & Hojat, M. (2011). Measuring empathy in healthcare profession students using the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy: Health provider – student version. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 25(4), 287-293. doi:
- Gano-Overway, L. A. (2013). Exploring the connections between caring and social behaviors in Physical Education. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 84, 104-114.
- Grühn, D., Rebucal, K., Diehl, M., Lumley, M., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2008). Empathy Across the Adult Lifespan: Longitudinal and Experience-Sampling Findings. Emotion, 8(6), 753–765. doi:
- Han, S., Fan, Y., & Mao, L. (2008). Gender differences in empathy for pain: An electrophysiological investigation. Brain Research, 1196, 85-93.
- Hojat, M. (2009). Ten approaches for enhancing empathy In health and human services cultures. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 31, 4, 412-450.
- Hojat, M. (2007). Empathy in patient care: Antecedents, development, measurement, and outcomes. New York: Springer.
- Kataoka, H. U., Koide, N., Ochi, K., Hojat, M., & Gonnella, J. S. (2009) Measurement of empathy among Japanese medical students: psychometrics and score differences by gender and level of medical education. Academic Medicine, 84(9), 1192-1197.
- Kavussanu, M., & Boardley, I. D. (2009). The prosocial and antisocial behavior in sport scale. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 97-117.
- Kuh, G. (2009). What student’s affairs professionals need to know about student engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 50 (6), 683-706.
- Lennon, R., & Eisenberg, N. (1987). Gender and age diferences in empathy and sympathy. In N. Eisenberg, & J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its development (pp. 195-217). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Limpo, T., Alves, R. A., & Castro, S. L. (2010). Medir a empatia: Adaptação portuguesa do Índice de Reactividade Interpessoal. Laboratório de Psicologia, 8(2), 171-184.
- Magalhães, E., Costa, P., & Costa, M. J. (2012) Empathy of medical students and personality: evidence from the Five-Factor Model. Medical Teacher, 34(10), 807-812. doi:
- McMahon, S., Wernsman, J., & Parnes, A. (2006). Understanding prosocial behavior: the impact of empathy and gender among African American adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(1), 135-137.
- Moyano, S. (2012). Acción educativa y funciones de los educadores sociales. Barcelona: Editorial UOC.
- Neumann, M., Edelhäuser, F., Tauschel, D., Fischer, M. R., Wirtz, M., Woopen, C., Haramati, A., & Scheffer, C. (2011). Empathy decline and its reasons: a systematic review of studies with medical students and residents. Academic Medicine. 86 (8), 996–1009. http://dx.doi:
- Paro, H. B. M. S., Silveira, P. S. P., Perotta, B., Gannam, S., Enns, S. C., et al. (2014) Empathy among Medical Students: Is There a Relation with Quality of Life and Burnout? PLoS ONE 9(4): e94133.
- Pascarella, E. T. (2006). How College affects students: ten directions for future research. Journal of College Student Development, 47 (5), 508-520.
- Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2): A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Pérez-Albéniz, A., Paúl, J., Etxeberría, J., Montes, M. P., & Torres, E. (2003). Adaptación de Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) al español. Psicothema, 15(2), 267-272.
- Pinho, V. D., Fernandes, C. S., & Falcone, E. O (2011). A influência da idade e da escolaridade sobre a experiência empática de adultos. Estudos e Pesquisas em Psicologia, 11(2), 456-471.
- Quince, T. A., Parker, R. A., Wood, D. F., & Benson, J. A. (2011) Stability of empathy among undergraduate medical students: a longitudinal study at one UK medical school. BMC Medical Education, 11(90), 1-9.
- Ribeiro, E. (2013). O educador Social, identidade e reptos na aprendizagem da profissão. In J. Palhares, & A. Afonso (Org.), Livro de Atas do I Colóquio Internacional de Ciências Sociais da Educação, II Encontro de Sociologia da Educação – O não formal e o informal em educação: centralidades e periferias (pp. 827-832). Braga: Centro de Investigação em Educação (CIEd), Instituto de Educação Universidade do Minho Braga.
- Saldana, G. N., Albornoz, J. M., & Contreras, M. V. (2016). Diferencias en empatía según sexo y área disciplinar en estudiantes universitarios chilenos de la provincia de Concepción, Chile. Educación [online], 25, 49, 63-82. http://www.scielo.org.pe/pdf/educ/v25n49/a04v25n49.pdf
- Shanafelt, T. D., West, C., Zhao, X., Novotny, P., Kolars, J., Habermann, T., & Sloan, J. (2005). Relationships between increased personal well-being and enhanced empathy among internal medicine residents. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 20(7), 559-564. doi:
- Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J. P., Stephan, K., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
- Wei, M., Liao, K. Y. H., Ku, T. Y., & Shaffer, P. A. (2011). Attachment, self-Compassion, empathy, and subjective well-being among college students and community adults. Journal of Personality, 79, 191-221.
- Zabala, A., & Arnau, L. (2007). 11 Ideias clave. Cómo aprender y enseñar competências. Barcelona: Editorial Graó.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
About this article
16 October 2017
Print ISBN (optional)
Education, educational psychology, counselling psychology
Cite this article as:
Felizardo, S., Ribeiro, E., Novo, R., Prada, A., & Magalhães, C. (2017). Empathy Perception In Social Education Students: An Inter-Institutional Study. In Z. Bekirogullari, M. Y. Minas, & R. X. Thambusamy (Eds.), ICEEPSY 2017: Education and Educational Psychology, vol 31. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 891-901). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2017.10.86