Developing and Assessing Empathy through Study of Christian Heresies in an Introductory Christian History and Theology Course

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Christopher Richmann
Courtney Kurinec
Felicia Osburn


Empathy is a nebulous concept that is nonetheless touted in many schools’ curricular goals and striven for by many instructors. Unfortunately, lack of a shared definition and reliable measures for empathy hamper efforts to determine whether this goal is realized. Defining empathy as “the ability to know the internal state of another,” this study explores the effect on students’ empathy of a learning project focused on Christian “heresies,” developing and refining tools for assessing empathy in student writing. The intervention included scripted role-playing and reflection, group discussion, and an essay in which students discussed the appeal and rejection of a particular heresy in the persona of a “heretic.” We found no significant effect in time or group comparison on an empathy questionnaire; an upper-middling level of empathy in essays, and a large effect in group comparison of student responses to a simple prompt to define a “Christian heretic.”

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Author Biographies

Christopher Richmann

Christopher Richmann is Assistant Director for the Academy for Teaching and Learning and affiliate faculty in Religion at Baylor University.

Courtney Kurinec, Washington State University

Courtney Kurinec is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. She specializes in the study of memory, decision-making, and metacognition and learning.

Felicia Osburn, Baylor University

Felicia Osburn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology and graduate fellow with the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University.