Create an empathy map of your students

Creating an empathy map of your students will help you consider what they are likely to think, feel and do while they progress through your unit. If you keep their points-of-view as your focus as you write your unit, you will likely see better ways to link your unit content to their interests, needs and wants.

What is an empathy map?

Empathy mapping is a technique used by UX (User Experience) Designers to help them develop an empathetic understanding of their users. An empathy map is not about a specific individual, but rather, it represents a typical student who is completing your unit.

Traditionally, an empathy map will outline what a user says, thinks, feels and does. Another approach is to add the user’s goals. In other words: what a representative student might say, think/feel, do, want.

A typical student...

Thinks and feels 




Sources of information when preparing an empathy map

The student body at Southern Cross University is diverse, and every student is unique. This process is not about identifying any individual.

As stated previously, an empathy map should be representative of the real people in your unit. Draw on the following sources to inform your empathy map:

  • demographic information from Student Administration: age, nationality, first in family etc
  • previous experience with students in the same or similar units: did students have anything in common, did they speak about similar concerns or goals?
  • your own understanding of yourself and your peers as students in your discipline
  • if available, site behaviour analytics from similar units.

How to create an empathy map of your students

Use the sources available to you to write what a representative student in your unit might say, think/feel, do, and want in the four squares of an empathy map. The aim is to base the empathy map on people other than yourself (past and existing students) but you may need to draw on your own and your peers’ experiences of being students in your discipline.

Once you have created an empathy map, use it to link the students’ interests and behaviours to the content in your unit, so they will be actively engaged in your content.

Example: Empathy map of a creative writing student

The following example shows and empathy map for a Creative Writing student.

A typical creative writing student..

Thinks and feels 

I think I have what it takes to be a good writer.

Deep down, I’m worried my writing isn’t good enough.

I’m keen to connect with other writers but I’m worried about what they’ll think of my writing.


Reads widely and discusses books with friends 

Studious and hard-working in class

Starts planning assessment early


More likely to post on discussion board than speak up in online tutorials

Tries to be kind and supportive of other students

Might query the unit assessor if feedback on assessments not detailed enough


I want to earn my living as a writer.

I want to know what an example of a High Distinction looks like in this unit. 

I want to connect with my fellow students. 

I want my Unit Assessor to care about my learning.

Example: How to apply the empathy map of a creative writing student to unit design 

The empathy map above shows a representative Creative Writing student. Some of the statements and opinions on the map have been listed here with examples of how you could apply it to the design of your unit.

Item listed on empathy map

How you might apply this to your unit design

Reads widely and discusses books with friends

Could you use ‘my favourite books’ as an ice-breaker at the beginning of the unit and to spark student engagement?

Starts planning assessment early

Could you discuss the assessments in detail at the start of the unit, rather than just referencing assessment dates? 

Deep down, I’m worried my writing isn’t good enough

Could you create a discussion board where students contribute to a list of class rules that are designed to create a safe and supportive space for all?

More likely to post on discussion board than speak up in online tutorials

Could you use this as a warning to be prepared for some written responses in the comments, in addition to the verbal responses to your discussion prompts, and design tutorials around this?

I want to earn my living as a writer

How does your content improve the students’ chances of earning a living? Rather than only linking your content to the learning outcomes, can you also demonstrate how the learning links with professional practice?

I want to know what an example of a High Distinction looks like in this unit

If engaged students are keen to know information that will improve their learning outcomes, and the information is not provided, how will this reflect on the reputation of the unit and faculty?

I want my Unit Assessor to care about my learning

With large workloads and limited time for each student, how can you demonstrate to them that you care about their learning? Can you include your solution as part of the design of your unit?

Other ways to use an empathy map

Once you have created an empathy map of a representative student and used it to enhance the design of your unit, consider other ways you could use empathy mapping to improve your unit:

  • When you are editing and redrafting your unit, return to the empathy map to help you imagine you are reading ‘through your students’ eyes’ as you read through your unit.
  • Consider the less-represented students in your unit, for example, mature-age students or students who speak English as a second language if these don’t represent the majority of students in your unit. Can you create a new empathy map to reflect their thoughts and behaviours? Can you add supplementary material to better suit their needs? Could you write a case study that is more representative of your diverse students?
  • Consider preparing two empathy maps: one that represents a typical student at the beginning and one that represents a successful student at the end of your unit. What might they say, think/feel, do and want after they have achieved your unit’s learning goals? Can you design ‘mini celebrations’ of success within the unit to acknowledge these achievements and motivate students? Can you use their likely responses to the learning goals at the end of the unit to think of new ways to inspire them during the learning?
  • Imagine what an empathy map representing an unsuccessful student might look like. Does it help you identify changes you could make to decrease the likelihood that a similar student might be unsuccessful in future?

Where to next?

Once you have developed an empathy map of the typical students in your unit, use it to support the design of your unit and ensure that you are linking your content to their interests, needs and wants.


Gibbons, S. (2018, January 14). Empathy Mapping: The First Step in Design Thinking. Nielsen Norman Group.

(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)