OMG RU Really Going to Send That?
Email Communication with Students
Andrew Peck, PhD
The Pennsylvania State University
Electronic communication plays an important role in traditional collegiate education and online learning. In 2001, the number of email messages outnumbered letters sent by the United States Postal Service (Levinson, 2010). In 2002, Bloch reported that the typed word began to establish itself as the primary means of interpersonal communication, mentioning a case in which a student broke-up with her boyfriend via email. In fact, email has become the most widely used instructional technology (see Wilson & Florell, 2012). Recognizing this, at least one college tells students that email is the “lifeline of [their] communication with the college.” (http://www.gwinnetttech.edu/webmail/, sec. 1). Interestingly, while we are most likely to initiate electronic correspondence to send course announcements or meeting requests, students tend to use their “lifeline” to make appointments, ask questions, and offer excuses (Duran, Kelly, & Keaten, 2005)
Email can benefit faculty members and students in a variety of ways. Email is a relatively inexpensive way to communicate with many people quickly, it fosters collaboration, file sharing (Hassini, 2004) and group problem solving (Hassini, 2004; Wilson & Florell, 2012), and it provides an electronic record or “paper trail” for later reference (Wilson & Florell, 2012). Email can also increase the accessibility of the instructor (Hassini, 2004; Wilson & Florell, 2012). We can use email to provide feedback, which can foster academic development (Duran, Kelly, & Keaten, 2005), motivation (Duran, Kelly, & Keaten, 2005; Kim & Keller, 2008), and achievement (Kim & Keller, 2008). Some have noted that email can increase student writing (Hassini, 2004), although others have expressed concerns about the quality of students’ electronic correspondences (see Bloch, 2002). Email can increase communication with students who struggle with face-to-face communication, including foreign, shy, or disabled students (see Bloch, 2002; Duran, Kelly, & Keaten, 2005). Finally, email use can improve students’ perceptions of us, especially when our responses are helpful and prompt (Sheer & Fung, 2007), and include appropriate emotional content (Wilson & Florell, 2012).
Like other instructional technologies, email is a tool, and misuse can result in unexpected consequences. Although the option to send a message to a large group of people quickly can be helpful, email does not come with “you probably shouldn’t send that” warnings, and sometimes people will send ill-conceived electronic messages to many recipients, as these examples of public Tweets (posts on Twitter) demonstrate:
“I can't believe my Grandmothers making me take out the garbage I'm rich f*** this I'm going home I don't need this s***” - 50 cent (Note: I’ve added spaces and censored the message to make it more readable and appropriate for readers)
“With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food.” - Voula Papachristou, Greek triple jumper who was removed from the Greek Olympic team for posting this sarcastic comment
Although many of us are fortunate enough to have students who don’t send inappropriate mass mailings to classmates regularly, email does provide an avenue for upset students to vent before they’ve fully considered the consequences. Furthermore, while email increases the accessibility of the instructor, it also means that students have increased expectations about our availability and personal attention. Consequently, responding to email seems to have changed the nature of our work.
Some of us prefer to use email as little as possible because the loss of non-verbal, social, and contextual cues can increase misunderstandings (Hassani, 2004), but many of us seem to treat it as a job requirement (and sometimes it is). Nonetheless, it can be time consuming to respond appropriately to student messages (Hassani, 2004), and sometimes responding becomes “the third shift in an already overcrowded day” (Mason, 2010, para. 3). Sometimes, when it is clear that students did not take the time to read important announcements sent via email, we wonder if sending email is worth the time it takes us to compose the message.
To make matters worse, sometimes we wonder if the email students send are actually written by the student who is listed as the sender. In our department, my colleagues and I have received messages from student accounts that were actually written by those students’ friends, roommates, and parents. Ironically, some of us might wish students’ parents wrote messages for their children more often, as student messages can be too casual for many educators (see Bloch, 2002). It is not uncommon for electronic messages to lack grammar and punctuation, as this example demonstrates:
“can i come 2 ur office i need 2 meet w u b4 the test i have ?s thx”
Faculty Member Expectations
Faculty members vary in their expectations of student email (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2007). To help students understand specific expectations, some of us include a statement about email communication in their syllabus. Here is an excerpt from a sample syllabus that focuses on instructor accessibility and other concerns:
Email policy: On weekdays, I check my mail once -- in the early morning. If you send me an e-mail after 6 a.m., do NOT expect an answer until the next day. I do NOT check my mail at all on weekends. So if you send me a message anytime after 6 a.m. on Friday, you will not get an answer until Monday morning. I do not open emails with attachments. I do not open emails without subject lines. I do not open emails written in languages I can’t read – so be sure if you have your email set to a non-English format that your name and information come through in English. (http://public.wsu.edu/~mejia/Handbook/Sample_105_Syllabus.htm, para. 2)
Here is an excerpt from another syllabus that focuses on tone and style:
…all email communication will follow the guidelines enumerated here. Email should be composed in formal, professional language, and with attention to the propriety accorded to the position of the writer, and the addressee…(http://www.hist.umn.edu/hist3722/syllabus.html, para. 9)
Some might worry that including these types of statements in their syllabus might cause students to view them as overly strict, but students may not be aware of how they come across in their email and appreciate knowing teacher expectations (Martin, 2011).
While a syllabus statement can help, challenging email messages seem to come with the job. While there are no recipes or guidelines we can use to construct the perfect email message, people have offered a number of helpful considerations. To help sort out these considerations, I have organized them below using based the popular green, yellow, red color coding scheme to reflect the potential gravity of the student’s message or the educator’s response.
Code Green Messages
Fortunately, we sometimes get “Code Green” messages. These messages are complimentary or positive in tone and content (I wanted to thank you for…, I enjoyed your course, are you teaching others…), ask for appropriate information respectfully, or include appropriate requests. Generally, these messages are easy to respond to professionally, so there is little need to offer strategies for responding to these types of messages.
Code Yellow Messages
Unfortunately, “Code Green” messages are often outnumbered by “Code Yellow” messages. These messages require us to proceed cautiously, as the message might require a considered response. Experience suggests that there are several types of “Code Yellow” messages: those that demonstrate that students misunderstand their own responsibilities, messages containing inappropriate personal information, and messages motivated by students’ anxieties (see Wilson and Florell, 2012, for an excellent review).
Sometimes students misunderstand their own responsibilities, and deflect or request accommodations to compensate (Wilson and Florell, 2012). For example, my colleagues and I get messages from students like these:
Dr. __ , I didn’t do well on your final exam. I am on the __ team and need an A in your class to get into my major and retain my scholarship. Please help.
Dr. __ , I didn't realize the ___ was due yesterday. What can I do to make-up those points?
Dr. __, I won’t be prepared for class discussion and can't do the first reading quiz because I just ordered the book. I apologize for any inconvenience.
Dr. __ , I didn't make it to class today. Can you please send me the notes I missed?
Sometimes students will include personal details of their lives inappropriately to justify a request. Sometimes lonely students just write to be friendly, and sometimes students seeking relationship advice confuse us with writers for the Dear Abby column. Consistent with examples provided by Wilson and Florell (2012), here are some example messages my colleagues and I received:
Dr. __, How are you? I would like to make an appt. to meet with you. I don’t have anything specific to discuss, I just thought I would stop in to say hi and chat. I have two dogs named….
Dr. __ , Help!…me and my friend hooked up once in the beginning of the semester and I liked her but didn't think she liked me back so I moved on, and……but now...what should I do?
Sometimes “Code Yellow” messages are sent by conscientious and responsible students whose anxieties get the best of them. Consistent with examples provided by Wilson and Florell (2012), here are some example messages we received:
Dr. ___ , I am in your 11:00 am class. I completed the extra credit writing assignment in class today, but I didn't receive credit in the online grade book yet. Please get back to me right away. I really need this credit. [message sent at 1:30 pm]
Dr. ___ , I wonder if the study guide you gave us is really everything we need to know for the final. We didn’t cover Chapter 11 in class, and it isn’t on the syllabus, but should I study it anyway? I emailed you earlier today, but I didn’t hear back yet.
Sometimes, students send “Code Yellow” messages requesting information that is outside of the responder’s expertise. In these cases, it is appropriate to redirect the student to the appropriate resource, often an academic advisor or health services professional. However, many “Code Yellow” messages are class specific, requiring us to respond directly. In these cases, we should try to treat these moments as “teachable moments.” We should model professionalism, maintain a professional tone and offer appropriate content (Wilson & Florell, 2012). Sometimes leading by example can help, and one never knows who will read the message, especially when technologies make it easy to share electronic correspondence with others easily.
As mentioned above, students appreciate it when we include emotional content in their responses (Sheer & Fung, 2007), but it is important to balance a congenial tone with a professional tone. One way to do that is to express empathy/sympathy when saying “no” (Wilson & Florell, 2012).
Example: Thanks for letting me know. I appreciate your dilemma. I hope that you can stay on the team and keep your scholarship. I’d really like to accommodate your request, but I have to assign your grade on the basis of merit and abide by the grading policies in our course syllabus or I will…. violate departmental and college policies….create an unfair situation for other students….
Wilson & Florell (2012) have also recommended that we provide students with perspective and encourage responsible action.
Example: Unfortunately, you can’t make it up, but it is only worth…you can still do well in the course if you…..
Example: Yes, you can do that. Please see the syllabus for details.
They also recommend ending our messages with a positive and sincere tone when possible, but also recognize that a persistent student will struggle to take “no” for an answer. In these cases, it is up to us to end the conversation directly, but not aggressively, ignoring additional email from the student about the same issue.
Example: Thanks for following-up and providing more information. I hope you have a good weekend.
Example: I appreciate your continued concerns, but as I said, there isn’t anything else I can do without violating college/course policies. I consider this matter closed.
Code Red Messages
While “Code Yellow” messages require us to slow down and respond cautiously, “Code Red” messages often require us to stop what we’re doing to construct a planned response. “Code Red” messages are highly emotional, highly critical, or have an aggressive tone. Examples include pleas for help, student disclosures of abuse or suicidal inclinations, or hostile messages from irate students. While discussing strategies for responding to aggressive behavior, Tunnecliffe (2007) listed a number of potential causes for students’ anger. He noted that some aggression stems from the lack of critical knowledge or inaccurate information, unrealistic expectations, or previous rewards for aggressive behaviors. Research on the development of the teenage brain also suggests that teenagers are more likely to become highly emotional than we are, and that emotion may cloud students’ reasoning abilities (for an example, see Spinks, 2013). Regardless of the factors involved, many aggressive messages seem to be triggered by perceptions of unfairness or inequity.
Because of the nature of “Code Red” messages, there are a number of things to consider when responding. On many campuses, when faculty members are alerted to imminent threats of harm (including student self-harm) they are required to alert their chairs/department heads and campus or local police. Many campuses have counseling or intervention teams, other student resources, or partnerships with community programs to offer student resources. When appropriate, we should introduce these resources to victimized students and should consider facilitating student contact/appointment scheduling. If nothing else, we can encourage victimized students to go to the local hospital, where hospital personnel and case-workers can get involved.
On some campuses, faculty members are instructed NOT to take on the role of detective/police officer or ask the student specific questions about a traumatic experience. This can increase feelings of victimization and make it less likely that the student will share critical details with law enforcement officials, student conduct authorities, police, or health professionals. Instead, we are advised to take the information the student has provided at face value, ask a few general questions (What happened? When? Where?) so that information can be passed on to authorities, reassure the student that they will do what they can to help, and then follow campus guidelines for helping.
Dealing with aggressive students can be challenging and emotional for us. My colleagues and I have found it helpful to walk away from the computer and let some time pass before they respond (usually 12-24 hrs). This gives us time to cool down so that we can respond more professionally, and it gives the student time to cool down, too. Occasionally, students will realize their message contained inappropriate content or had an inappropriate tone, and they will send a follow-up apology. While there isn’t any research on successful strategies for responding to aggressive email, recommendations can be drawn from discussions about the best ways to communicate with angry students to promote de-escalation. It is important to avoid using a reprimanding tone (Tunnecliffe, 2007), which can promote defensiveness and increase perceptions of victimization. It is also important to recognize that anxiety can increase threat perceptions (Craske, Rauch, Ursano, Prenoveau, Pine, Zinbarg, 2009), and that anxious students are more likely to interpret ambiguous information or references to authority as more threatening than intended. A calm, jargon-free, tone might be more successful (Tunnecliffe, 2007; University of Oregon Counseling and Testing Center, 2012). With this in mind, it is important to note that we should avoid using capitalized words or bold text for emphasis, as some student interpret these formatting cues to mean yelling rather than emphasis (Hassini, 2004). The University of Oregon Counseling and Testing Center recommends acknowledging the student’s emotion, and Larson (2008) recommends using content cues that facilitate an empathetic or sympathetic tone (e.g., I can see this is really important to you). We should use the present tense, focusing on the present situation rather than rehashing the past (Tunnecliffe, 2007) and explain what we can do (Larson, 2008) rather than explaining why we can’t address the student’s concerns, even if that is nothing more than an offer to meet and discuss.
Some of us might want to respond to criticisms from students directly. We all make mistakes, and sometimes students’ criticisms are based on something legitimate. In these cases, it might be best to agree with what is accurate and share your plan for corrective action (Tunnecliffe, 2007). If criticism is vague, it is fine to ask for clarification (Larson, 2008). Sometimes the initial criticism, or the response to your request for clarification, can be lengthy. In these cases, it might be best to address concerns globally rather than respond to individual concerns (Tunnecliffe, 2007). If none of these strategies sound appealing, we can always deflect the criticisms by simply thanking students for sharing their views (Tunnecliffe, 2007).
Final Thoughts: Maintain Perspective
Regardless of how you choose to respond to critical email messages, it is important to consider Alexander Pope’s “to err is human; to forgive divine” and to cut ourselves some slack (Tunnecliffe, 2007). It is also important to recognize that, while we can make the most out of “teachable moments,” we can’t get through to everyone (Larson, 2008). Research has shown that readers who are angered by email attribute the tone to the writer’s personality (Levinson, 2010). Student politeness affects our feelings towards the student, our beliefs about the student’s competence, and our motivations to help (Stephens, Houser, & Cowan, 2009; Bolkan & Holmgren, 2012). So, it is critically important to remember and apply the lessons we teach our students about the Fundamental Attribution Error and consider that situational, rather than dispositional, factors can lead the student to send inappropriate email.
Steve Johnson, a football player for the Buffalo Bills, blamed God for a dropped pass and posted the following to Twitter:
“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX “
So, the next time you read an annoying email message from a student, take a moment to appreciate that you are in good company.
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