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Empathy is a fundamental tool in problem-solving that enables people to see and understand all sides of an issue clearly. With empathy through design thinking, students understand they can create their own future and focus on their educational interests by learning and borrowing frameworks from other areas.

Empathy should be widely used inside and outside the classroom since asking more in-depth questions develops people’s thinking. It also gives them the potential for actual learning and helps them comprehend complex situations more quickly.

We featured Alison Carson, a Professor of Psychology and Associate Provost for Academic Innovation and Design Thinking, overseeing the Center for Design Thinking at Manhattanville College, in our Digication Scholars Conversations podcast. Alison discussed problem-solving and the role of design thinking as a methodology towards social innovation and social impact and how it empowers students to make changes in their communities.

How Impactful Is Empathy In Problem-Solving Through Design Thinking?


Empathy is essential to problem-solving because, in the design thinking process, it’s not about what we think is going on or creating solutions based on our assumptions. Instead, it is about centering the voices of the people experiencing the problem, understanding their challenges and experiences, and connecting with them.

In addition to moving up the list of topics covered in many schools’ curricula, empathy is currently a hot topic of conversation in the business sector. It’s like a simple action with a significant impact. It helps us to truly understand and relate to what others are feeling. What makes this even more evident is how powerful empathy is when it goes beyond personal emotions and is applied to problem-solving in education, business, or policies.

“Empathy is one of the things that sets design thinking apart from other methods. Because if you’re trying to understand or solve a particular problem, you have to understand the problem from the perspective of the person who’s actually experiencing that problem.” – Alison Carson.

What Is Design Thinking, And Why Should Students Be Interested In It?

Students’ education interests hold great power as it influences them to connect with desired skills or subjects. When students are connected to their desired field of interest, there is a more visible increase in engagement as they put more time and effort into their learning.

According to Alison, design learning is a project-based learning process where people learn by doing or participating. Exposing students to the design thinking process helps them learn and develop a growth mindset, analytics, and problem-solving skills.

Design thinking helps students learn they have the power to make a real change and will find methods of understanding an issue and how it affects the subject. Then, they’ll dig deep into the content and develop unique ideas to solve the problem.

The design thinking process focuses on problem-solving and encourages us to be creative and flexible and solve problems in new and unique ways.

For problem-solving

As humans, we are accustomed to solving problems as they occur. Even if we don’t go out to look for them, there will never be a lack of a problem confronting us. The design thinking process compels you to consider issues from various angles, identify the problems, and gain insights or collect data vital to developing appropriate solutions.

Alison talked about the Manhattanville Fall Design Challenge. It is a community-wide event at the college that takes place every fall. It involves faculty, staff, students, and alumni who come together on teams to address a particular campus project, problem, or issue. She mentioned that one of the recent problems was the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which forced schools to close down. As a result, everybody had to go virtual, and people lost touch with their communities. Although many of their students were online, not all of them were. Therefore, when they got back together, they had to solve the problem of reconnecting as a community, which became a challenge to be solved during the annual fall event.

Alison also highlighted that they worked as a team, and people came up with amazing ideas to connect not only the campus but also across different roles. Therefore, the design thinking process requires we focus on human wants and behaviors and think of ways to create solutions that meet those human needs. The emphasis on problem-solving is a catalyst driving design teams to develop original solutions for challenging issues.

Supports teamwork and collaboration...

Design thinking is a problem-solving process that cannot occur in a vacuum. It requires various perspectives from designers, potential customers, and other stakeholders. Therefore, collaborative relationships and brainstorming sessions are essential to design thinking methodology.

Alison mentioned that people came with different viewpoints and opinions while brainstorming and thinking up solutions to get their communities back together after the COVID-19 lockdown.

The campus staff were particularly interested in how they could participate and engage in campus events and be part of the campus community. They wanted to be seen and valued for the ideas they bring to the table because it is also important to them to collaborate in the problem-solving process.

Students were very interested in understanding what was happening on campus. So the primary idea that came out of one of the groups was building an App that is not only about events but aggregates everything in one place, which was always an issue for the campus. 

Encourages social innovations

One of the main focal points of the design thinking process is finding innovative answers that address human needs. The team will attempt to develop original solutions for highly complicated situations. Those solutions must also be novel if they are developing solutions to novel issues.

The design thinking process is continuous, so innovation doesn’t have to stop there. Teams can keep improving the solution’s usability to ensure that the target audience’s challenges are successfully solved.

Alison mentioned the campus’s innovative program called ATLAS. According to her, ATLAS utilizes the foundations of Digication’s ePortfolio system. It focuses “on a very intentional collection of information, reflection and intentional decision-making around certain inflection points across the student’s academic career.”

Meanwhile, students still use Digication’s ePortfolio for their end-of-the-semester/year assessments and as a reflective educational tool, among its numerous other functions.

Conclusively, no matter what tool you use to self-assess, monitor, or reflect on your learning goals and progress, applying empathy will help you think more critically and actively - giving you a broader perspective on how to proceed. Problem-solving and empathy through design thinking allow people to think creatively and make a positive difference as thoughtful problem solvers in the world.

Want to hear more from Alison Carson and get the full details on how they’ve integrated design thinking to help students make impactful decisions, and more? Listen to the full episodes.

Don’t miss any episode of the Digication Scholars Conversations podcasts.