Linking Empathy to Character Via a Service Learning Endeavor

Kyle Ryan and Sheri Grotrian-Ryan
Peru State College, USA


Service to the community is a popular endeavor; however, taking these activities further and integrating academic rigor continues to offer those in academics opportunities to combine both service and learning. To demonstrate this, students of a local state college chapter of Phi Beta Lambda (PBL) undertook a service learning event in which they were instructed to put themselves into the shoes of the individuals they were serving. This action, they were told, was to elicit the emotion of empathy and that the said empathy was the cornerstone of character.


The National Future Business Leaders of America–Phi Beta Lambda (FBLA–PBL) organization currently asks students to implement a community service project that, if recognized, is eligible for presentation at the National Leadership Conference. This assignment presents the possibility of transforming a community service project where, arguably, the community is the sole recipient of the action, into a service learning event where both the community and students benefit. To examine this transformation, students of a local state chapter of Phi Beta Lambda (PBL) undertook a service learning event at an open-door mission.

The benefit to the community in this project was for residents at the mission to receive a warm, nutritious meal while students also organized the pantry and walk-in refrigerator/freezer. In addition, the students set aside additional time prior to the service learning event and organized a clothing and diaper drive. The end result was a total of 293 pounds of clothes and diapers being collected.

The benefit to the students was to explore the academic concept of empathy as a cornerstone of character and character development within the community served. In order to implement a curricular process in which the students can further examine empathy and character, a direct correlation must be made between empathy, character, and character education. Of further interest to the researchers was whether a six- to eight-hour service learning activity would demonstrate any response in curricular understanding of empathy considering the activity fell below the recommended minimum of 20 hours.

Review of Literature


Empathy, “the ability to apprehend the inner state of another and vicariously experience similar emotions” (Shields, Bredemeier & Power, 2002, p. 547), has recently been recognized as a critical component of character and successful leadership (Pillay, 2010; SanFacon & Spears, 2010; Bacon, 2009; Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008; Chun, 2005). In fact, empathy has become such a popular notion in the business world that several books have been devoted to the subject, including The Empathy Effect (Ward, 2005), Listening with Empathy: Creating Genuine Connections with Customers and Colleagues (Selby, 2007), and Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (Patnaik, 2009).

The academic literature suggests that empathy is multidimensional: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Cognitive empathy involves understanding another’s situation and assuming their perspective. Emotional empathy is when one experiences feelings of another person. Finally, behavioral empathy is when one attempts to help another in distress (Volbrecht, 2008; Brett, Smith, Price, & Huitt, 2003). This study hypothesizes that engaging students in service learning can develop empathy for others if those students are instructed to be aware of this component of character. By establishing empathy, students are then capable of engaging in further character development.


A discussion of character and its definitions is undoubtedly beyond the scope of this study as few have ever “managed a clear definition of the word ‘character’, assuming instead that everyone knew what the word meant” (MacLeod, 1983). The origin of the word itself is derived from the Greek character, “…the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another” (Homiak, 2003, para. 1). Yet, for the purposes of this study, a definition of character is necessary. Shields, Bredemeier, and Power (2002) offer that “…character refers to the inner dimension of self-agency in which the various processes of moral action become synthesized, coordinated, and ‘owned’ as self- expressions” (Shields et al., 2002, p. 541). The idea of the inner dimension of self- agency translating to self-expression helps to illustrate further that character is comprised in both thought and action. This also demonstrates that character, being the result of mental process preceding action, is capable of being constructed as it “develops through the interaction between the individual, who actively interprets experience and makes judgments about right and wrong, and the world as organized by culture” (Shields et al., 2002, p. 543).

Character Education

Given that character can be constructed, character education then becomes a meaningful reality for any college curriculum hoping to integrate it, as both “Aristotle and Dewey describe character education as taking place through a process of habituation” (Shields et al., 2002, p. 538). The concept of character development can also be seen as being supported by society. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s (2003) survey of public opinion on higher education revealed that 58 percent of individuals polled felt that the development of good values and ethical positions was a very important role for a college to perform, while only 6 percent of the respondents felt developing good values was not an important role for the college.

What can be argued is that in today’s college curriculum a need and desire exists for character education. What’s more, a surprising number of business schools have been willing to undertake such an endeavor stating that the pedagogical experience should be infused with examples, exercises, and opportunities (Eastman, 2010; Krell, 2010; Brown, Sautter, Littvay, Sautter, & Bearnes, 2010; Steutel & Spiecker, 2004).

Having previously established that character is in thought as well as action and that an individual “constructs” character, the concept of character development must include more than just a demonstrated public need and an institutional means of providing a physical character development model. What is also important is an understanding of the psychological means of developing character.

While childhood developmental expert Lawrence Kohlberg served as an initial influence on the character development framework postulated by Bredemeier and Shields, much of their later research has been underpinned by a framework of interactional morality (Tod & Hodge, 2001). The 2002 article “Character Development and Children’s Sport” by Shields, Bredemeier and Power introduces James Rest (1986) and the Defining Issues Test as a major influence by citing his Four Component Model of Morality.

According to Rest (1986), the Four Component Model of Morality begins with the question: How does moral behavior come about? From this question it was suggested that the four functional processes are required whereby an individual (a) recognizes the moral issue, (b) makes a moral judgment, (c) resolves to place moral concerns ahead of other concerns, and then (d) acts on the moral concerns.

Shields, Bredemeier, and Power view the development numerically as Process I, labeled Interpretation, as a progression that encompasses perception of elements within the situation, perceiving moral issues involved, and anticipating outcomes. Process II, Judgment, entails determining the optimal moral action for the situation. Process III, Choice, involves weighing the moral value against other nonmoral values (such as personal interest) and deciding which action to pursue. Process IV, Implementation, involves initiating action despite the obstacles involved. Shields et al. (2002) cite Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau & Thoma (1999) as equating Process IV with character, the ability to persist in the face of temptation, and that “moral identity is the core of what we mean by character…the inner dimension of self-agency in which the various processes of moral action become synthesized” (Shields et al., 2002, p. 541). When character is placed at the integrative core of the Four-Component Model of Morality, character is equally engaged with each of the four processes as such (Shields et al., 2002, p. 544).

Although the task of identifying all specific psychological competencies is beyond the scope of this study, Shields et al. identify a single psychological competency or characteristic for each of the four components that they feel are “significantly robust that a very significant portion of the variance in observable moral behavior may be attributable to the set of identified constructs” (2002, p. 545). These characteristics are empathy for Process I, moral reasoning for Process II, motivational orientation for Process III, and ego strength for Process IV.

Service Learning

For the purposes of this study we determined that service learning must maintain a level of academically rigorous pedagogy (Berry & Workman, 2007), while keeping in mind that the end result is to not only benefit the students, but also the community involved. The idea that service learning can be easily adapted into the FBLA-PBL community service program has been identified through administrative support, an advisor whose role it is to supervise and monitor service learning as well as facilitate reflection, and a desire on part of the college administration to establish community ties. Recent public opinion also dictates that civic engagement is beneficial for business schools as a result of distrust following corporate scandals (Furlow, 2010).

What the researchers sought to establish is that moral development theory, and particularly that of Shields et al. (2002), can be enhanced by incorporating compatible service learning endeavors. Bradley (2003) suggests that a suitable service learning endeavor is capable of moral development in schema similar to Kohlberg’s four-stage model. Within the context of this study we chose to devote our attention to stage four which is applicable to college students and many adults. Kohlberg wrote, “Individuals are motivated to do the right thing to preserve the social order. Participation may hinge on two factors:

  1. Is there a rule that requires them to do this? (2) Are they able to see their participation in the context of their responsibility to society?” (p. 57)Service learning for collegiate students is dependent upon their desire to participate in the PBL community service event. This organization encourages students to perform service and, if done properly by following the guidelines, will allow students to see their participation in the context of their responsibility to society. Furthermore, Bradley (2003) illustrates “possible strategies for balancing challenge and support in K-16 students, based on Kohlberg’s theory,” with particular attention again being paid to the collegiate student. In particular he recommends:
    • In-depth, extended opportunities for students to confront stereotypes through service with people from backgrounds that differ from their own.
    • Encouraging students to become advocates for causes associated with their service activities.
    • Self-inventories, processed with the teacher.
    • Journal writing, responding to a choice of questions related to causes and issues underlying their service activity.
    • Timely responses from teachers and/or site supervisors to any written work.
    • Regular meetings with other students involved to process and plan activities (pp. 60-61).

Again, looking at Stage Four of Kohlberg’s Moral Development Model, the PBL community service endeavor is capable of providing the local college students the opportunity to meet the challenges listed above, as well as perform the necessary support mechanisms with assistance from the researchers. In fact, meeting times set aside for the PBL community service program adequately served to provide for reflection, discussion, and immediate feedback on the service learning process providing an ideal forum for the student to fully realize the benefit of service learning and, in turn, the formation of character.


The use of case study as methodology stems from several pre-determined factors; (1) the population, the case, was bounded: (that is to say the case had “a common sense of obviousness (Adelman, Jenkins & Kemmis, 1983)); (2) the case study is a description and analysis of a phenomenon, or social unit (Merriam, 1988); (3) the case is at center stage (Schwandt, 2007), and (4) the investigator had little control over “a contemporary set of events” (Yin, 2003, p. 9).

Participants in this study were ten student members of the local state college PBL and two faculty members. The names and identities of the participants were kept strictly confidential, and the faculty members were the only ones with access to their identities. In qualitative inquiry, the number of participants is discretionary but to remain faithful to the definitions of case study we chose to include all participants as the bounded case rather than select at random which students would be the participants of portraiture.

Our relationship with the students involved in the case also extended beyond that of researchers. Our roles at the college are that of faculty and one is currently advisor of PBL, thus the students knew us as faculty before knowing us as researchers. Our reason for choosing this case is that “many [constructivist], and…qualitative researchers employ theoretical or purposive, and not random, sampling models. They seek out groups, settings, and individuals where and for whom the process of being studied are most likely to occur” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 370). College faculty and students are encouraged by the administration to participate in service, and these students serve as an ideal population, and the given event serves as an ideal situation.

Data Sources

The use of a pre-service questionnaire served to establish a baseline regarding student perception toward service. It also assisted the researchers in identifying themes that “capture the drama and reality of a project while providing insight into the guiding question” (Pickeral, Hill, & Duckenfield, 2003,

p. 210). The researchers also avoided the use of Likert-scale responses, as answers “meaningful on a Likert scale [would] prove elusive. People [mean] different things, even though their numerical ratings were the same” (Shumer, 2003, p. 152). Avoiding Likert-scale responses also allowed for student self- assessment that could “lead to effective personal learning, the kind necessary for more successful direct application” (Shumer, 2003, p. 150), a key component of service learning. The post-service questionnaire served to document any change in student perceptions toward service learning as well as demonstrate if remembrance of definitions had been achieved. Open-ended questions from the pre- and post-service questionnaire were as follows: 1) I define service as: 2) I define service learning as: 3) The purpose of this service learning initiative/program is/was: 4) The two components of service learning are: 5) Character is defined as: 6) Empathy is defined as:.

Participant observation has been described as “the ultimate mixed methods strategy…used for generations by scholars across social sciences, positivists, and interpretivists alike” (Bernard & Ryan, 2010, p. 41). And, for the purposes of this study, it was designed so that the researchers spent “significant time in the setting, joining in important activities or events, but (not assuming) an actual role as such” (Remler & Ryzin, 2011, p. 73).

The use of guided reflection in journal writing is an important concept to prevent the student journals from being misused as a simple log of events, thereby missing the reflective component inherent in thinking critically about

experiences (Reed & Koliba, 1995). Although the act of journal writing is a rigorous documentary tool (Janesick, 2004), journal questions served to focus the participants to push beyond mere description and pursue connections between the research question and the service learning experience (Eyler, 2002).

Consistent with the multidimensional aspect of empathy, journal questions allowed the researchers to gauge whether a cognitive shift occurred demonstrating a level of success. These guided questions included the following:

1) Why do you do service? 2) Describe the people you met at the service site. 3) How were you different when you left the service location compared to when you entered? 4) How did the service site make you feel? 5) What have you learned about yourself? 6) How can this experience apply to other situations in your life? 7) Name one thing that stuck in your mind about the service learning experience. 8) What have you learned about a particular community or social issue? 9) How did this experience challenge your assumptions and stereotypes?

10) Do you think these people or situations are unique? Why or why not?

Service Details and Results

True to the tenets of both participant observation and service learning, the service site dictated placement of participants involved. As a result, we had five females that worked in direct contact with residents at the open-door mission and five males that did not have direct contact with residents at the service site. Five females worked in the kitchen serving food to the residents and in the lunchroom area where the residents ate. Five males worked out of sight of the residents in the pantry and walk-in refrigerator/freezer. Despite placement, guided journal reflections produced some similar results to the questions posed.

Based upon key words and emergent themes from the guided reflections, when asked why the participants perform service, there seemed to be a reciprocity participants felt would take place as the vast majority indicated they wanted “to help others.” They also expressed service “makes them feel good,” and it gives them a “sense of self-satisfaction.” In reality however, it was only the male respondents who expressed they felt “lucky,” “happy,” or had a “good feeling” when asked how the service site made them feel. The female respondents, who spent the majority of their time in direct contact with residents, felt “needed and yet depressed,” “sad,” “uncomfortable, especially at first,” and “very uneasy.” What is worth further investigation is whether this is a gender issue or a direct result of the type of service being performed. Again, the type of service performed was dictated by the service site. It is also interesting to note that when asked to describe the people students met at the service site, with the exception of one respondent (male), both male and females offered responses that can best be described as subjective: “extremely polite,” “nice and appreciative,” “very thankful for us helping out,” and “grateful for everything we did.”

These initial questions revealed that while the students anticipated reciprocity (helping others will make me feel good), the true experience of service created an initial feeling of sadness or discomfort until the students were afforded an opportunity to reflect empathetically. Post service, a demonstrated cognitive shift occurred when these students were able to push preconceived notions aside and witness individuals of circumstance rather than only lifestyle choice. From students expressing that “our grandparents, parents, and ourselves caught a break somewhere” to the notion that “people had jobs but did not have enough money to provide necessities for the family,” residents of the service site were more than “homeless people on the streets begging for money” and “lazy bums who didn’t even try in life.” Again, this change, or shift, in reflective writing demonstrated the successful development of empathy among the service learning participants who were able to understand another’s situation and assume their perspective (cognitive empathy). Students also revealed they learned or realized they would like to continue to partake in service in the very near future, and even later on in life, on a more regular basis (behavioral empathy).

The initial results of this service learning experience do demonstrate success with regards to three key aspects linking character to empathy within the participant population: 1) the ability to alter the thought process; 2) the ability to demonstrate a cognitive shift; and, 3) the ability to think in empathetic terms.

Even so, further study is necessitated to determine if this in itself is capable of resulting in a quantifiable form of character as expressed in action. A longitudinal study of a similar cohort is recommended by the researchers to determine whether or not a similar experience can have long-lasting effects.


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About the Authors:

H. Kyle Ryan

Dr. Ryan is a graduate of Humboldt State University with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies and a M. S. in Kinesiology. He also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado in Sport and Exercise Science with a minor in Statistical Research Methods. His dissertation is entitled, “What Is the Impact of Service Learning on Student-Athletes’ Character Development?”

Assistant Professor, School of Education, Peru State College, P.O. Box 10, Peru, NE 68421.

Sheri Grotrian

Grotrian is an Assistant Professor of Business at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. She holds a B.S. in Business Administration – Marketing & Management from Peru State College and an MBA – Strategic Management from The University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Ms. Grotrian is currently completing her dissertation research within the Human Resource Development discipline at The University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her area of research is mentoring and its relation to leadership development.

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