Researching the Self: Autoethnography and Empathy in the University Classroom


  • Douglas Leonard US Air Force Academy



empathy, autoethnography, reflection, pedagogy, university teaching


This paper proposes a strong link between the practice of self-reflection and the growth of emotional empathy in university students. Importantly, the study occurs in the context of a capstone experience in the history major, combining both reflective activities and detailed disciplinary research to break down student barriers to learning as they move into their professional lives. The results of multiple administrations at the beginning and the end of the semester of the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire revealed a statistically significant increase in student empathic scores. Student weekly reflective journals, when assessed using a three-part rubric of “superficial,” “proficient,” and “advanced” categories, also demonstrated a substantial increase in the proportion of advanced expressions relative to superficial writing. Qualitative review of these journals and related reflective writing assignments revealed significant growth in student personal vulnerability as an entry point to authentic learning and empathy. Vital as a leadership skill, empathy also provides an important indicator of student metacognitive engagement with their intellectual and emotional changes during their youth that will be helpful in their following lives.