Honors Program as Innovative Influence: UW-Eau Claire Welcomes New Approach to Nursing Ed

Editor’s Note: The following story comes to us from UW-Eau Claire, and the author is Shari Lau…Honors programs often provide resources and support for course development that benefits the whole university.

Becoming an effective nurse is about more than mastering technical skills in a lab. It’s about understanding people and connecting with them to individualize their care.

Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, believes her responsibility as a teacher is to prepare the next generation of nurses to see patients as people first. That’s why she created a University Honors Program course titled “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions.”

The College of Nursing and Health Sciences recently presented Lapp with the 2015 Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for her development of the course, which uses an innovative teaching strategy focusing on theater applications.

To learn more about the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course and Lapp’s relationship with the University Honors Program, read the Q&A below.

Q&A with Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing

Can you describe the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course?
This is a course I designed using theater applications to help students examine and experience empathy in face-to-face human situations that feel authentic, yet do not violate confidentiality. Theater and artistic expression can provide an intense experience for which you are present in the moment. It can also provide the immediacy of an emotional connection with an actor in a personal way, or collectively, in the context of the audience experience. Everyone knows that seeing something performed is not real life, but when done effectively, there is a “suspension of disbelief” that makes the emotional or intellectual connection very real.

In the course, we begin by learning about how empathy connects us with other people. Together we visit Dr. Jennifer Chapman in the department of music and theatre arts and do some exercises analyzing what another person may want, what obstacles may stand in the way and which strategies the other person is using to get what is wanted. Through this exploration, we all learn a little more about ourselves and our own human responses.

In the latter part of the course we also spend some time exploring communication techniques that we can carry with us into our various professions. We become aware of skills like listening more astutely, being more present in the moment, becoming more comfortable with silence and through being intentionally curious, we can all learn to refrain from making premature assumptions or taking sides. I like to leave the students feeling as though they’ve developed some tools that will foster and enhance their own capacity for empathy.

What inspired you to create this course?
I was inspired to create this course when I read an article about the “empathy enigma,” and upon further exploration, I found ample evidence in the literature documenting that empathy declines in nursing and medical students over time and with experience. This was startling to me as a nurse educator, and when listening to my graduate students in classroom discussions, I could often detect a hardening attitude in some of them about the very populations for whom we need to be advocating. I decided to make the examination of empathy in professional life the focus of my sabbatical project.

Early in my sabbatical, I became more inspired by reading the empathy-related research of a psychologist working with medical students at another university. I actually set up a telephone consultation and asked if I could observe a class session. To make a long story short, I ended up traveling to California and was invited to help facilitate a class of medical students blended with senior citizens. One of our strategies involved reading selected theater scenes with the students and senior citizens, followed by reflection and discussion of perspectives of both patient and provider. The senior participants influenced all of us to think and feel differently about situations as a result of sharing their life-informed wisdom. For me, this encounter sparked a powerful and enduring foundation for my work.

What does receiving the Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for your work in developing this course mean to you?
It means a great deal to receive this award from the nursing department. It demonstrates appreciation for my efforts to directly influence our ability to connect with people, and thus improve the hallmark of our practice, which is caring. The award’s recognition for course development in the University Honors Program also demonstrates the nursing department’s support of interdisciplinary work, as this offering was designed for Honors students across campus who see themselves in any helping profession, not only nursing.

What does it mean to you to have the opportunity to create a course such as this as part of the Honors program?
This opportunity is a rare gift. It’s like a dream come true for any teacher to have the chance to create an interdisciplinary course about something one is personally interested in, committed to or has a passion for, especially when it may not directly address an essential component of existing curriculum. It is a real pleasure to have been granted this unique opportunity that the University Honors Program offers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As one result of this exploration, I value curiosity more than ever. I see myself as a learner, always. And looking back on this first class of students, I’ll be forever amazed by the depth of personal insight that they were prepared to share with one another.