April 13

Designing Student Engagement: Empathize and Define

As spring rolls on, many teachers are looking both for ways to continue the momentum until the end of the year and ideas for an engaging start to the next year. With design thinking, teachers can provide authentic experiences that challenge students to work collaboratively, think creatively, and share with real audiences. Whether it’s the first few days of school or the end of the year, the process (or parts of it) can be easily implemented. 

As we mentioned in the previous post, design thinking is a human-centered approach to designing a solution to a problem. But what makes it “human-centered”? The fact that the first step revolves around building empathy for the end-user (in this case, whoever is being benefited by the solving of the problem). 

Today, let’s explore the first two stages of design thinking: empathize and define. For this series of blog posts, we’re going to follow a class in which students have been presented with a challenge: to improve the experience for new students at their school.  

This process begins with teachers presenting the challenge to their students. Students may work in preassigned small groups or groups of their choosing. The first step of the process is empathizing: understanding the problem that has been presented to them. To do this, students might interview each other (or, even better, new students at the school) to learn more from those experiencing the actual challenge of being new to the school. They might, for example, discuss good and bad experiences they’ve had at new schools, in new classrooms, or even in new situations outside of school. 

As students listen to one another, they take notes for later reference. Students then share what they learned in their interviews within their small group and with the whole class. This allows everyone to benefit from the understanding gathered in the empathy stage.

Now that students can relate to their target audience—new students—they will begin to define the problem. By observing patterns and categorizing the information they have learned from each other (and any research they may have done), students synthesize their ideas. By the end of this phase, students refine the problem and develop an understanding of the people they will serve by solving it. 

These first two steps of the design thinking process confer myriad benefits:

  • Community building as students get to know each other, share experiences, relate to one another.
  • Increasing empathy and understanding of how empathy affects interactions and problem-solving.
  • Encouraging creative and critical thinking as students determine the information and understanding they gleaned can be used as a basis for problem-solving.
  • Practicing speaking and listening skills as students have to share their own ideas and actively listen to others.


These first two steps in the process of design thinking can be used as part of the process as a whole (as shown here) or separately. Students can always be asked to build empathy or define problems. Thinking creatively in this way helps students connect more authentically with the content they are learning. 

In our next post, we’ll look more closely at the next two steps: ideating and prototyping. 

About Kristy Louden

Kristy was a high school English teacher in Alabama before joining the Eduscape team as a Senior Learning Leader. During her 15 years in the classroom, she discovered a passion for building relationships with students and colleagues and mentoring new teachers, which led to a transition into an instructional coaching role. As her district went 1:1 in 2014, Kristy found a passion for finding ways to integrate technology to engage learners. She has led many professional development workshops in her district and online across the US.

Kristy earned her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Missouri in 2011 and her B.A. in Education from Western Michigan University. When Kristy isn’t reading blogs or books about learning and education, she is probably devouring novels, riding her horse, or cuddling her two dogs.


Design Thinking, Remote Learning

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