Empathy in the Classroom: Using Virtual Reality to See Through Students’ Eyes

In the ‘90s, as an immigrant child from Korea with no English proficiency, I remember one of the challenges in my school day: ordering lunch. I didn’t know how to order American food. I learned the word “same” so that I could receive whatever the student in front of me ordered. I’d secretly hope it was something I liked. In moments like that, I sometimes felt invisible. And when I became a teacher, I knew that I didn’t want to forget that school is a place where life happens.

As educators, we are caretakers of young people who struggle with various issues. Research shows that teachers who empathize with their students tend to have better student outcomes. But some teachers have difficulty empathizing or understanding their students’ individual experiences and adjusting their teaching practices accordingly. And there are some aspects of their students’ lives that they just miss.

So, in 2019–2020, I started a project to help teachers see students’ experiences and use that knowledge to improve their interactions and teach more effectively. Through a virtual reality (VR) headset with a 360-degree video of their own classrooms, six teachers at St. Christopher’s School (VA)—across disciplines, divisions, and years of experience—had the opportunity to reflect on their teaching practices and their interactions with students. And ultimately, they had the chance to work on their empathy muscles—and improve student outcomes.

Classroom With a View

I learned about virtual reality perspective-taking from Jill Ware, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was working on a project to improve the ability for doctors to empathize with their patients. She hypothesized that an empathetic doctor had better patient outcomes. The project was fascinating to me because I have always been interested in emerging tech and the empathy construct. If there was evidence for improved outcomes in patient care, I thought it might also help teachers who are interested in connecting with students. I asked the middle school head and the director of STEM programming to help with my request for the equipment—which cost $200 per headset—and to try it out with a few teachers.

As part of the project, teachers each selected one of their students whose perspective they wanted to experience. Some teachers chose students who they were struggling to connect with, and a few teachers chose random students. A 360-degree camera lens was positioned directly in front of the selected students on a tripod to gain perspective from the students’ eye-levels, whether they were interacting with others or working on a project independently. I asked teachers and students to carry on classroom activities as they normally would.

After the recording was edited and ready for viewing, teacher participants scheduled a time during the school day to watch the videos through a VR headset. The video begins with a view from the student’s desk. Next, teachers experience their own lecture from the student’s perspective for 3 minutes. Then there’s a three-minute clip of a one-on-one conversation between the student and the teacher. The video closes with a three-minute small group activity in the classroom.

During the viewing experience, teachers were able to choose their focus. “The virtual reality headset gives us an ability to access something that we wouldn't otherwise be able to access,” one teacher participant explained. “It even moves beyond just filming a class with a traditional 2D video camera because we’re able to see 3D. We can sit there in the seats of the students and move around and look around.”

Teacher Takeaways  

Each teacher experienced their own classroom first, then within a week, they chose two other classroom videos to watch through the headset. The teachers participated in semi-structured interviews with me and a focus group to discuss their experiences.

One of the themes that emerged: Physical presence affects how students perceive their teachers. Teachers expressed that close physical proximity with students directly demonstrates a level of care. Teachers also felt that their tone of voice may unintentionally sound imposing to students. Research shows that if students feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they are less likely to engage with their teachers and the curriculum. Two teachers spoke explicitly about their plans to soften their tone of voice during lessons to improve teacher-student interaction.

Teachers also felt that seeing and experiencing the classroom as a student helped them reflect on the level of student engagement with them as well as the curriculum. One teacher said: “I did not attend as well, I thought, to my introverted students. I was engaging more with the extroverted students. My quieter, more introverted students were actually making interesting comments that I missed.”

Interestingly, teachers also reflected on their misperception of student engagement. One teacher said that she constantly struggles to manage one student in her class. Through the video, however, she noticed that the same student was working hard to keep other students engaged. He was leading his classmates through a small group activity. The teacher now crafts lessons in which students can help each other at a pace that works for them.

The use of virtual reality provides teachers with the opportunity to challenge their assumptions about their teaching practices. Virtual reality perspective-taking allows teachers to reflect on what they might not have noticed about their students. By literally taking the perspective of their students, the teachers were able to better understand their students’ needs and adapt their lessons accordingly. Another teacher observed, “I noticed students just sitting. I think that was something that stuck out to me, just the passive nature of sitting and consuming information.” This teacher plans to incorporate more movement in his class.

Teachers have shown that virtual reality perspective-taking improves their ability to empathize with their students. St. Christopher’s School plans to incorporate this exercise into the existing training program for new teacher hires. New teachers will be shown how to record 360-videos, and I will prepare 10-minute videos for them. Current teachers will be given the option to use virtual reality perspective-taking to reflect on their practice in between their yearly evaluations.


St. Christopher’s School teachers try out the virtual reality headsets. 
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David Shin

David Shin teaches science and robotics at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He can be reached at [email protected].