Practical Tools to Empathize with Your Learners

Centering Your Learners 

The tools described below – Empathy Maps, Learner Personas, and Learner Journey Maps – can help you get a better sense of your learners’ lived experience. You can draw on this understanding to create learning experiences that are not only effective, but also more relevant and meaningful to them. We know from the literature and our teaching experiences that empathizing with learners is important to make evidence-based decisions, to recognize and remove biases, and to support learners’ success (Lammers, 2021).  These tools give you practical ways on how to actively practice empathy in your classroom.  

Empathy Maps 

An empathy map visualizes what we know about our learners to create a shared understanding of their needs and to aid decision making (Gibson, 2018). You can gather information through conversations with your learners or through more formal surveys or focus groups. Even if you have not collected a lot of data about your learners, the process of creating empathy maps and asking these questions can generate meaningful insights. Empathy maps can be based on an individual or a group.  

Empathy maps explore the following questions: what do your learners… 

  • Think and feel? What’s on their mind? What emotions are coming up for them? 
  • See? What do your learners observe in their physical space? What do they see in the course’s learning management system, i.e., LEARN, or other online tools?  
  • Say and do? What do learners do (and not do) in class? How do they respond to questions? How are peers working or not working together? 
  • Hear? What are your learners hearing from their peers, their instructors, their families? 

Here are a few ways to use empathy maps. While each learner brings their own lived experiences, empathy maps can be helpful across subject areas and may provide insights for other classes or future years.  

  • Informal personal reflection: you can create an empathy map independently based on conversations with students and your observations in class.  
  • Class reflection: you can share an empathy map you created to prompt discussions in class and share how your teaching decisions are informed by your learners.  
  • In-class peer assignment: learners can pair up and create an empathy map based on their partner. This can also work well in groups. You can then review learners’ empathy maps, highlight key insights, and share how they help inform your teaching decisions. 

Sample Empathy Map 

Mariam Mazen is going into her third year of Psychology at the University of Waterloo. This empathy map is based on her experiences in July 2022 preparing for the upcoming Fall semester. Her experiences help inform third-year instructors that learners might not have in-person lab experiences –due to remote teaching caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – and might need more guidance with fundamental lab techniques. Some learners also struggle with imposter syndrome since they haven’t been on campus and have largely learned online during their university years. This can be more common among students who have continued to live at home as there is not as clear a distinction between time in high school and time at university.  

When asked how instructors can support students, Mariam shared that the main thing instructors can do is practice patience and empathy. She wanted instructors to know that skill gaps, such as lab techniques, are not from a lack of effort, but rather a gap in experience.  


Source: (Burke, J., and Mazen, M., 2022).

Create Your Own Empathy Maps 

Template: See this editable Empathy Map  template (Kahoe, 2019). It’s openly licensed through Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-SA). You may use and adapt it with attribution in your own work and share it with your learners. If you publish it, you also need to use the same CC-BY-NC-SA license. 

Learner Personas 

When designing learning experiences, it’s helpful to have a clear idea of who you are designing it for. A learner persona distills information about real learners into a representative learner. They are based on real observations and learner feedback, not assumptions. Learner personas help you learn more about your learners and create an ongoing resource you can refer to. 

To create a learner persona, first gather information about your learners. If you’ve created empathy maps, you’ll already have some of this information.  

  • Background: demographics, education, and work experience 
  • Goals: what are the learners’ goals? Why did they sign up for this course? 
  • Motivators: growth, autonomy, achievement, etc. 
  • Learning preferences: individual vs. group, online vs. in-class, etc. 
  • Pain points or concerns 

Next, look for themes and trends. For example, you might gather this information from 20 learners and notice three groupings with similar educational backgrounds, motivations, pain points, etc. These groupings each become a learner persona. Each learner persona is given a name, a representative photo, a description, a quote, and a summary of each of the elements above (i.e., education, work experience, goals, etc.).  

Here is an example of a learner persona from Gaylen et al. (2020). It focuses on objectives, expectations, and concerns of the learner. It also uses low to high scales to rate the learner’s views on the relevance of course work, concern about cost, tolerance for technical issues, accessibility of instructional support, and accessibility via multiple devices. 


Click here for a larger version of this Learner Persona image. Source: Gaylen et al., (2020) 

Create Your Own Learner Personas

Survey Tools: To gather information about your learners, you can use survey tools such as Qualtrics or Surveys in LEARN, or even Google Forms.

Template: You can download an editable Learner Persona template (PPT) from Reflection Software.   

Learner Journey Maps 

A learner journey map helps you design a larger learning experience and consider the full learner journey. At each stage, you consider what the learner is asking, thinking, feeling, and doing. It is like an empathy map, but it extends over the full learning experience versus one point in time.  

Boller and Fletcher (2020), encourage you to identify learners’ magical and miserable moments. Then, work to enhance the magic and minimize the misery. Visualizing the learner journey can help you solidify the overall structure and plan for learners’ interactions with their peers, educational materials, and with you, their instructor. You also want to plan for gathering feedback throughout the learning experience so that you can adapt it to meet learners’ needs.  

The Learner Journey Map from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has three distinct phases of the learning experience (OISE, 2022). 

  1. Pre-launch: when you initially share information about the learning experience, but learners haven’t started working on it. 
  2. Launch cycle: when learners complete the learning experience, often in steps.  
    • Sample steps using a group project: (1) create an outline, (2) submit a draft  (3) complete peer reviews (4) revise project, (5) submit final project, (6) reflect.  
  3. Post-completion: when you follow-up with learners. 
    • This can be challenging to do in a defined 12-week course, as you likely can’t reach out months later to follow-up. A couple options include adding a reflection stage or revisiting the experience later in the course during a final assessment. 

You can also complete a learner journey map at a higher level. Here is how Brecher and Worsham (2018) describe how to make a learner journey map: 

  1. Describe the major challenge you are hoping to explore in this learner journey map (e.g., “writing an effective literature review” or “critically examining primary source documents”).  
  2. Write one learning outcome related to this challenge in the center circle.  
  3. Identify pre-learning that might help set up students for success. As a part of this, break down your learning outcome into smaller tasks and more manageable steps.  
  4. Identify next steps in the learning process. What will learners do next and what is the bigger picture or larger goal they are heading toward? 

Source: Adapted from Brecher and Worsham, 2018 

Creating Your Own Learner Journey Map 

The Build Something Toolkit (Brecher and Worsham, 2019) provides a learner journey map template. You can also find a different approach to empathy maps and a template in this toolkit.  


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 



Boller, S. and Fletcher, L. (2020). Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys that Get Results.

Brecher Cook, B. D. and Worsham, D. (2018, April). Let’s Build Something!: A Rapid-Prototyping Instructional Design Workshop. Pre-conference workshop at the 2018 CARL Conference, Redwood City, CA. 

Gaylen, K., Chuchran-Davis, L., and Culbertson, M. H. (2020). Connecting the Dots: Improving Student Outcomes and Experiences with Exceptional Instructional Design.

Gibbons, S. (2018). Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking. Nielson Norman Group.

Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.). Personas.

Kahoe, J. (2019). A Little Empathy Gets You Everywhere. 

Lammers, J. (2021). Empathy Mapping: Bridging Cultural and Linguistic Divides in International Online Education.

Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) Continuing and Professional Learning, University of Toronto. (2022a). Learner Journey Map.  

Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) Continuing and Professional Learning, University of Toronto. (2022b). Learner Persona. 

Reflection Software. (2022). Start Creating Learner Personas Today.