Hi, I’m Steve. I was a professor of communication for thirty years before accepting a position as a Learning Experience designer in the CETLOE in June. A month after starting, I was asked to teach an online class for the Department of Communication in the fall. The transition from faculty to staff was a challenge, but I was on top of my work in the CETLOE and the class I was teaching was ready to go. I was busy but things were going well.
What I did not expect was the deluge of student emails I received during the first week of class. Answering emails can feel like an unnecessary time-suck, especially in the always-busy first week of class, and it can be frustrating to spend valuable time answering questions that are addressed in the syllabus.I believe these kinds of often frustrating student emails can also be viewed as an opportunity to pull the student into the course. This is particularly true in online classes, where creating immediacy can be more challenging.
So What Is Immediacy, Again?
Immediacy is a feeling of closeness that a student has for a teacher. Teachers can establish immediacy by using student names, asking students what they think and feel, by making eye contact, and by using a warm tone. Teacher immediacy matters because research shows that when instructors are perceived as being more immediate by their students, student motivation, participation, and learning are enhanced.
Immediacy comes into play in all facets of communicating with students online classes, and recent research has focused on mediated communication with students in general, with emphasis on immediacy in online classes.
Can I See An Example?
Given that most of our students are online now, it makes sense that they are emailing us more, so we need strategies to handle this new normal. What follows is an example of a student email that might trigger some frustration for me. I get this kind of email often in the week before class starts.
I hope ur having a nice day. I was wondering if we need to buy a book. Thx – Jamie
Although I might choose to answer this sort of email as succinctly as possible or even choose to answer in a more passive-aggressive way, a better approach is to take a few more seconds to respond in a way that might establish a connection with the student before the class even starts.
My day is going well, thanks for asking! I appreciate that you are getting prepared for next week, and this is a good question; a lot of your classmates are asking the same thing. The answer is no: you will not have to purchase a book. We’re using a free online textbook in the class. It’s a win-win because we still use a great book but it doesn’t cost students anything!
Let me know if you have more questions. I am looking forward to working with you!
You can see that the email begins with a warm salutation and uses the student’s first name. The tone of the email is friendly and helpful. I compliment the student for asking a good question that demonstrates some forethought about the class. My use of exclamation marks is meant to convey enthusiasm. I not only answer the question, I also explain the benefit of the approach taken in the class (it’s a great book that is also free). Finally, I let the student know that they can email me in the future, and I close the email in a friendly and informal manner. Many of these features are similar to the way some instructors teach their students to write emails to them.
But Wait! What About Alternatives To Individual Emails?
Although you should, of course, always answer individual student emails, you can begin cutting down on your communication workload before the semester even begins by sending out a Welcome email. Here’s an example of an email I sent last week to the entire group of students in my class this spring.
Welcome to SCOM 1500 Public Speaking, section 002! I am looking forward to working with you this semester! I am writing to give you information I think a lot of you would like to know before the semester starts. To access the class, go to your iCollege home page and click the Public Speaking tile (it has an image of a person speaking to an audience). This will take you to the Announcements page, where you will find a welcome video from me.
Here are answers to some common questions I often get early in the semester:
- The syllabus for the course is attached to this email. Please let me know if you have any questions.
- The class is asynchronous. There is never a set day/time that the entire class meets on WebEx or Zoom, etc.
- The textbook is free and built into the course. You do not have to buy a book.
- All of the work is done in iCollege. You do not have to buy access to a publisher’s website.
There is no need to think about this class until Monday, January 11, when classes start, but if you have questions please email me! Enjoy your last week of vacation. I look forward to meeting you soon!
Steve (Dr. Herro)
Notice that the email establishes a warm and somewhat informal tone with the students, and it provides common information that many students want to know before the course begins (it happens to answer Jamie’s question – I hadn’t been thinking about this blog post when I wrote it).
The purpose of these examples is not for you to mirror my approach in your own communication with students. I encourage you to think about how you want to be perceived by students and how that may or may not encourage students to feel close to you. Immediacy can be developed by instructors who prefer a more formal mode of communicating with students – expecting them to refer to you as “professor” or “Dr.”, for example. You can maintain your position as an expert in the subject matter and in control of the class while also developing immediacy. And it does not take that long.
I hope these ideas help you think through how you might respond to student emails in a way that could improve your student’s educational experience. Later this week, I will be sharing more ideas about how to manage communication with your online students in the iCollege classroom.