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The impact of an arts-based programme on the affective and cognitive components of empathic development
  1. Joyce Zazulak1,
  2. Camilla Halgren2,
  3. Megan Tan2,
  4. Lawrence E M Grierson1,2,3
  1. 1Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2Michael G DeGroote School of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3Program for Educational Research and Development, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lawrence Grierson, Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, McMaster Innovation Park, 175 Longwood Rd. S., Suite 201A, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8P 0A1; lawrencegrierson{at}


Medical education research demonstrates that empathic behaviour is amenable to positive change when targeted through educational programmes. This study evaluates the impact of an arts-based intervention designed to nurture learner empathy through the provision of facilitated visual literacy activities. Health Sciences students (N=19) were assigned to two learning groups: a group that participated in a visual literacy programme at the McMaster Museum of Art and a control group that participated in the normal Health Sciences curriculum. All participants completed an inter-reactivity index, which measures empathy on affective and cognitive levels, prior to and following the programme. Those individuals assigned to the visual literacy programme also completed open-ended questions concerning the programme's impact on their empathic development. The index scores were subjected to independent within-group, between-test analyses. There was no significant impact of the programme on the participants’ overall empathic response. However, sub-component analyses revealed that the programme had a significant positive effect on cognitive aspects of empathy. This finding was substantiated by the narrative reports. The study concludes that the affective focus of humanities-based education needs to be enhanced and recommends that learners are educated on the different components that comprise the overall empathic response.

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