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Interpersonal relationships are central to the teaching and learning of mathematics. One way that teachers relate to their students is by empathizing with them. In this study, I examined the phenomenon of pedagogical empathy, which is defined as empathy that influences teaching practices. Specifically, I studied how mathematics graduate student instructors conceptualize pedagogical empathy and analyzed how pedagogical empathy might influence their teaching decisions. To address my research questions, I designed a qualitative phenomenological study in which I conducted observations and interviews with 11 mathematics graduate student instructors who were teaching precalculus courses at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln.
In the first part of my dissertation, I analyze how the participants in my study conceptualized pedagogical empathy and discuss their views on eight dimensions of empathy identified by researchers in the field of psychology. In the second part of my dissertation, I identify five factors that have the potential to influence instructors’ pedagogical empathy: instructors’ past experiences, students’ mathematical experiences, students’ experiences outside the classroom, the importance of communicating pedagogical empathy to students, and the course structure. Finally, in the third part of my dissertation, I examine how four of my participants reflected on their decision-making through a lens of empathy and argue that pedagogical empathy can be conceptualized as a filter that connects pedagogical content knowledge and emotional knowledge to decision making. My findings suggest that instructors can develop a more empathic disposition towards students over time through reflection. In addition, the conclusions drawn from this research can help inform professional development targeted at novice postsecondary mathematics instructors.
Advisors: Nathan Wakefield and Yvonne Lai