Picture a college student appealing for a higher grade in his professor's office. The student admits to a mixed performance during the semester, but he still doesn't understand why the professor gave him such a low grade.

"Can't my worst grades just be dropped, including those zeros on the missed quizzes?" the student asks. "That way, my final grade would represent my best work in the class."

"But," the professor counters, "think of the students who worked hard all semester to read, take notes, and study, and who sacrificed time from other important activities to earn good grades. Don't we need to take them into account and be fair to everyone?"

The student may agree that he doesn't want to be unfair, but he remains convinced that he deserves a higher grade. Depending on the student's persistence and command of available arguments, this chipping away at the instructor's resistance could go on for some time. And now the professor is thinking, Goodness, this really is the student's most committed performance all term.

Many who teach experience versions of this conversation regularly and attempt to reason with wheedling students using arguments that rely on a principle of basic fairness. But asking students to respect others' perspectives can be the wrong approach if they don't understand how to empathize in the first place.

Imaginatively taking on another person's thoughts and identifying with their emotions are two habits at the core of empathy. In fact, empathy is not a fixed trait like having brown eyes or long fingers. Empathy is instead a delicate cocktail blending assorted elements of inborn aptitude, social conditioning, personal history, and practice and motivation.

The ability to empathize is like a muscle capable of growth, atrophy, disability, and even regeneration (think Scrooge). People have different innate capacities for building certain muscles, just as we have different incentives for being empathetic and experiences in honing our skills to empathize. For some people, empathy comes easily and naturally; for others, concerted effort is required to stretch our imaginations beyond ourselves.

The troubling conclusion of a recent study by a team of social psychologists (including one of us, Sara Konrath) is that American college students have been scoring lower and lower on a standardized empathy test over the past three decades. In fact, a research paper published in May in Personality and Social Psychology Review shows that since 1980 scores have dropped 34 percent on "perspective taking" (the ability to imagine others' points of view) and 48 percent on "empathic concern" (the tendency to feel and respond to others' emotions). The standardized empathy questionnaire included questions like, "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me," or "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective."

The apparent decline of empathy among college students has led to open season for speculation about possible causes. The study's findings also amount to a perfect Rorschach test for those who consider empathy a virtue worth cultivating. Those who lean left politically might reflexively focus on a rising tide of libertarian individualism, market fundamentalism, and the celebration of the "virtue of selfishness" by Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and their think-tank popularizers. Those who lean right might blame other forms of individualism, including feminism, social liberalism, and rights-based social movements since the 1960s. But a general concern over the empathy deficit seems to be one thing that people from both political parties share, although they may remain worlds apart when considering the problem's causes and how to fix it.

Educators less keen to blame politics for the decrease in student empathy might look to changes in the college-going population's relationship to work, family, and higher education. For example, many students plan to attend graduate or professional school, making their college years more of an extended adolescence than an emergence into early adulthood, and pushing forward the traditional markers of that transition—getting married and having children—by several years. Cultural trends also play a role. The popularization of reality TV shows and the narcissistic exhibitionists who star in them; the focus of primary education on the problem of low self-esteem rather than low empathy; and the relative decline of face-to-face interaction and emotional communication due to increased online socializing may all contribute to the decline of empathy among college students.

The good news: A person's ability to empathize can improve. We know that people can be trained to become more empathetic through a variety of programs and methods, including some for college students and their professors. Studies have shown that empathy can increase when students are trained to improve their interpersonal skills or ability to recognize others' emotions. It can also improve after role-playing exercises involving another person's feelings or situation, after observing the misfortunes of others, and after exposure to highly empathetic role models.

Educators concerned about declining empathy should think about how to include some of these techniques in their classrooms. Besides the obvious social benefits, research also links empathy in students with better academic outcomes. Just as empathetic doctors and therapists have patients with better outcomes, empathetic instructors get better results from their students, even on objective measures such as multiple-choice tests.

Those who are most critical of the recent study's findings may be college students, who take them as an older generation's predictable complaints about "kids these days." It's true that such studies deal with averages distilled from very large numbers. Luckily, there are many highly empathetic young people who undertake projects like volunteering for altruistic reasons rather than for résumé-padding.

Instructors who wish to impart lessons about the nature of fairness, and its emotional and cognitive roots, must not forget that students are also taking mental notes as we, too, use or set aside our empathy muscles in our relationships with students. After all, it's hardest to empathize with those who don't reciprocate.

If empathy is truly on the decline among college students, then professors who care may be seen as both potential suckers, ripe for manipulation, or as potential sources of emotional connection—sometimes by the very same student. Students should be warned: Empathy doesn't make a person an easy target. When used with skill, empathy can guide us to balance the needs of ourselves, our students, and our larger social contexts with judicious care.

Paul Anderson is an associate professor of American culture and African-American studies. Sara Konrath is an assistant research professor at the Institute for Social Research, and an adjunct assistant professor of social psychology. Both teach at the University of Michigan.