Soul, Authenticity and Compassion: Essential Ingredients in Designing Meaningful Learning Experiences

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

What is the soul and how do we create courses for adult learners that connect with their souls and intellect? Regarding the learner with compassion and being ever mindful of their souls is our guiding principle for course design and teaching. We believe this is intrinsic to effective online education.



Dana Grossman Leeman, PhD, MSW is the inaugural Provost's Faculty Fellow for Online Education and a Professor of Practice at Simmons University. In her role, she provides faculty development, training, mentoring and support to 7 online graduate programs. Prior to this role, she was the Inaugural Program Director and Associate Dean for the Simmons School of Social Work and launched the online Master of Social Work and Behavior Analysis programs. She has been on faculty at Simmons University since 1996. She earned her PhD in Clinical Social Work from Simmons College School of Social Work in 2004. She earned her MSW from Boston University in 1989, and her BA in Psychology from Clark University in 1987.
James has devoted the past 15 years to improving and enhancing teaching and learning experiences. With an enthusiastic, curious and creative perspective, James loves exploring and pushing past perceived boundaries with his partners and clients. He has built and managed effective teams, designed and implemented program strategies, and coached leadership all in service of the learner, a high quality product, and impactful student outcomes. He is proud to have helped change the landscape of learning at leading institutions like Northwestern University and dynamic and innovative companies like 2U Inc.

Extended Abstract

What is the soul and how do we bring it to our work, relationships and lives? How do we create courses for adult learners that connect with their souls and intellect especially if we can neither succinctly define or operationalize the construct? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines soul as the spiritual, immortal, or immaterial part of a human being or animal.  Oliver (2004) reflected on the meaning and nature of the human soul and concluded that it was (mostly) unknowable. “And what the soul is, also I believe I will never quite know. Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing, but looking, touching, and loving (pp.4-6). Despite the intangibility of the soul, remaining ever mindful of  the learner’s soul, the integrity of their internal emotional lives, and regarding them with compassion and intentional kindness is a guiding principle for us in course design and teaching. Doing this is complicated and the creative challenge of our work.

Cramp & Lamond (2016) chronicled the process by which they created an online module informed with the “principles of engagement, dialogue, and kindness at its center,” where educators have an obligation to “shape digital learning landscapes into equitable, human, and democratic environments (pp. 1-2).  In addition to those values and practices, we add that course design must contain empathic attunement to the holistic needs of the learner, establish a mutually respectful relationship between the learning experience designer and the faculty member, and create emotionally resonant educational experiences.  Bell (2011) as cited in Cramp & Lamond (2016) stated that learning is emotional work, and that attunement to the learner’s needs and positionality is an act of kindness that does not diminish academic quality or rigor. We will explore this further in this chapter. As you can see, creating compassionate course design involves a parallel process: the course designer empathically attuned to the faculty and vice versa; and both tune-in to the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of the student.  

There is so much to consider when creating a course.  One might assume that the process begins with the curriculum.  As course design commences, conversations at this phase begin with a review of the syllabus, or a preliminary map or outline that details the knowledge areas and topics to be covered, and the order in which they must be taught.  Practically, the foundation is built. The curricular world has been mapped, and one refines that map (or not) over the time one teaches the course, which might seem logical for at least two reasons. The faculty is probably a content expert and categorization of knowledge areas is useful and intuitive, which reflects their particular areas of study.  Less obvious is that faculty may teach the way that they themselves were taught. One artifact of this approach, and perhaps an unintended consequence, is that seasoned faculty can lose sight of their students’ cognitive, social, and learning needs and preferences as they are newly exposed to knowledge and skills. The gap between expert and novice complicates teaching and learning, and can cause disenfranchisement from their faculty, from their peers, and from course content.  In the aggregate, this derails or prevents learning from being meaningful, impactful, or transformative, or what Dee Fink (2013) refers to as significant learning experiences.

Curricular design begins by identifying the skill-based competencies that students should leave the course having attained and it is from this desired endpoint that the means to achieving these outcomes are constructed.  This is the essence of inductive or backward design. The faculty and learning experience designer (to be referred to as LXD) make critical decisions that will support the learner towards meeting articulated learning outcomes.

We believe that the learner is a whole human being with cognitive, social and emotional needs that must be held constant throughout learning experience design.  “In serving the needs of the student, the good teacher attempts to see things from the student’s perspective. This is an essential prerequisite of kindness. Brookfield (2015) remarks that “the language of student learning is, on the whole, fairly bloodless….Yet as any teacher knows, learning- particularly that involving risk, discomfort, or struggle- is highly emotional (p. 55)”.

  The relationship between cognition and emotions, and the intentional separation of thinking and rationality from feelings and affect is not only a western educational tradition, but is evident in the work of Plato and Descartes- who elevated rational thought and devalued learning as an affect-laden process (Ashton & Stone, 2018).  We now know from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that emotions can deepen and accelerate learning, and improve retention (Cavanaugh, 2018; Eyeler, 2019) and equally become a barrier when a student is deeply fearful, anxious, and insecure in their abilities. Aristotle proclaimed that educating the mind without appealing to or involving the heart is not education.  As previously stated, learning often evokes intense feelings and may include anxiety, terror, shame, paralysis, impostorship, insecurity, anger, joy, excitement, pleasure, pride, love, curiosity, wonder, awe, and transformation. We maintain that these feelings are experienced in parallel by educators who can use this awareness to mindfully design courses infused with compassion and emotion, which lead to multi-dimensional online presence, and deeper investment.  We assert that compassionate and soulful educational experiences are the result of faculty and LXDs keeping the learner alive and three dimensional in their imaginations and hearts. We also believe that this compassionate exercise includes the LXD holding the faculty with whom they partner in a similar way. We believe that each stakeholder (faculty and LXD) must be willing to take some personal risk to grow this working relationship from purely transactional and potentially objectifying to one that is characterized by interdependence, and allows for the mutual evocation of  vulnerability, curiosity, apprehension, resistance, excitement, hope, and a host of emotions that add depth and richness to their partnership and ultimately to the course itself. As a newly constituted team, the faculty and LXD envision and bring to life a complex learning journey for students in a way that maximizes the shared and distinct knowledge and skills that both bring to the work.

In this session, through moderated discussion, we explore our an approach to effective, rigorous, and student-centered  course design that involves the creation of an emotionally engaged partnership between a faculty member and a learning experience designer where they purposefully created online courses, keeping  their learner’s soul, mind, and educational aspirations in mind in ways that informed curricular design choices.


Activities for audience engagement:

1). Attendees will participate in Think, Pair, Share to give them opportunities to discuss their emotional needs as learners, faculty, learning experience designers, and to explore with other attendees ways in which they are currently creating compassionate and authentic learning experiences, or may wish to in the future.

2). The panel will involve conversation with frequent  prompts for the audience to invite their thought partnership and sharing of experiences.  This will engage the audience continuously throughout the session, rather than eliciting questions and reactions during a structured Q&A segment.


Learning Outcomes:

1). Attendees will leave with an understanding of an approach to course design that is informed by adult learning theories that connect to student engagement through cognitive, emotional, and social learning activities.

2). Attendees will leave with an understanding of the importance of the faculty/learning experience designer relationship and how this can liberate both parties to focus on students in compassionate ways that support acquisition of course knowledge, skills, and competencies.

3). Attendees will leave with an understanding of the parallel process of the faculty/learning experience designer process where  intentionality and authenticity, and empathy is required of both actors to create online course content for adult learners that supports their being intentional, authentic, and emotionally engaged.


Materials Used (handouts, web links, slides)

1).  Handouts

2).  Online resources

3). Slides

4). Snacks



Ashton, S., & Stone, R. (2018).  An A-Z of creative teaching in higher education.

    Los Angeles/London/New Delhi:  Sage.

Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in

    in the classroom, third edition.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand.

Cavanaugh, S.R. (2016).  The spark of  learning: Energizing the college classroom with the

    science of emotion. Morgantown, VA: West Virginia University Press.

Cramp. A., & Lamond (2016). Engagement and kindness in digitally mediated learning with teachers. Teaching in higher education, 21(1), 1-12.  doi:

Dee Fink, L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach

    To designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand.


Eyeler, J. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college Teaching   

    (p.68). West Virginia: West Virginia Press.

Merriam & Webster.

Oliver, M. (2004). Why I wake early: New poems.  Boston, MA: Beacon Press.