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ACU students on Community Engagement placement at a daytime drop-in centre in Brisbane (ACU)

University students who complete community placements as part of their degrees develop a greater sense of empathy than those who just learn theory, new research has found. Source: ACU.

Growing interest in experiential learning models such as service-learning or community engagement, where students complete compulsory community work as well as learn theory in lectures and tutorials, has seen a proliferation of programs offered at universities worldwide. 

However little research has investigated whether community placements can lead to an increase in empathy among students, until now. 

Researchers at Australian Catholic University (ACU) analysed the experiences of 1410 university students, taken from 35 separate studies, who were involved in face-to-face service with community members who experienced some form of disadvantage and marginalisation. 

The meta-analysis and qualitative meta-synthesis, published in Educational Research Review, found students who completed organised community placements through their universities were more empathic and understanding of people whose personal circumstances were different to theirs. The research paper is the first systematic evidence that shows service-learning contributes positively to student empathy. 

ACU Research Fellow Chloe Gordon, one of the lead researchers, said that as well as showing evidence of increased empathy, the research revealed that direct interactions with community members was an influencing factor. 

“One student in a study acknowledged how easy it was to read about people’s stories, but when you were watching them tell their story, with tears in their eyes, you felt a degree of the pain they felt and it resulted in a transformative experience,” Dr Gordon said. 

She said the research might be useful to employers, since an increasing number of professions want graduates who can connect with and work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds. 


Can university students learn empathy in their degrees? New research says yes (ACU)