Posts tagged educator

Posted 1 year ago

I welcome you, but I may not respond to you

Sending EmailTwo recent documents crossed my desk, one a study concerning sending welcoming emails to students one-week prior to the beginning of class (I know, this is a bit late for that, but still doable). The other discussed how to set boundaries on email communication, limiting digital clutter and establishing the rules and expectations on digital communication – which is probably especially important for those teaching hybrid/online courses. I thought I’d do a “welcome back!” post combining the strategies of these two studies, as a tip for setting the tone of out-of-class communication with your students, managing expectations and possibly limiting stereotypes and prejudices.

The study was conducted by Angela Legg and Janie Wilson in 2009. They found that sending a welcoming email to students one-week prior to class increased student’s motivation, fostered a positive attitude among students towards the instructor and the course, and increased student retention. Their study builds on existing research that indicates that building a rapport with students and keeping an open line of communication can increase motivation, participation, attendance, and learning (cf. Buskist & Saville, 2004; Christensen & Menzel, 1998; Frymier, 1994). Their research operates as an extension of theories of immediacy behaviors, and was expected to be most effective along gender lines, especially appreciated by female students more than male. To read about these theories more fully, I recommend you read the full study (available via the link below), it’s not long and it’s informative about student behaviors and how we can anticipate and forestall negative attitudes and perceptions.

First impressions can set the tone – good or bad – for the rest of the semester (Nilson, 2003; Wolcowitz, 1984). Traditionally, first impressions are made on the first day of class, but a welcoming email (the authors also suggest first contact can take other forms as well, such as using a social networking platform) can build a relationship before you ever meet your students. Tips for sending a welcoming email:

  • Personalize the message, rather than send a mass, blind cc email to all your students.
  • Provide your full contact information, office hours, and preferred method of contact (we’ll return to this item below).
  • Use a professional but approachable tone in your email, avoid excessive familiarity, attempts to be overly humorous, crude, or “hip”, stay on task by sticking to the connecting factor, your course. Striking just the right tone of friendly, open availability balanced with a professional, professorial air will carry over into your classroom environment.
  • Provide pre-reading opportunities (if applicable), list of texts, where they can be found (and publisher you prefer if applicable) and any other resources that may be helpful for students to get a jump on course work and/or come prepared to class.
  • Finally, invite questions! But, be sure you have the time and inclination to answer every email students may send your way. Let’s explore this question more now.

Crowd of people

Courtesy of National Geographic, 2003

How much communication is too much? We have to be aware that, if we open the door to digital communication and invite a relationship via email or any digital platform, there may be other expectations set. The second piece I read was called “The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours” by entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week (Crown, 2009). Though geared for a business audience, I found that many of the themes and suggestions of the article seemed particularly useful in relation to the study on welcoming emails and digital communication with students. It’s one thing to say, “I want my students to feel welcome to email me and ask questions”, but what limits do you set on your time, willingness to answer every minor email from students, and willingness to be available and expected to reply quickly? In an age where instant access and instant response are the standards, it is a wise move to set some boundaries and let students know what they can expect in their digital communications with you. By sending a welcoming email, you can influence attitudes, motivation, and even control some preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, but it’s worth limiting these communications – not at the expense of the student or relationship, but to strengthen them.

Ferriss calls email “the single biggest time waster in modern life” (4). He provides the following tips for setting boundaries for your email communications:

  • “Batching” Check email only once or twice a day, at set times. Turn off auto-alerts when you get a new email; it distracts you and interrupts productivity. Establish this rule of access in a template that is replicated (like a signature line) in each email – set up as an autoresponder or as an automatic amendment to each outgoing email. Here is a template [modified for educators]:

Greetings,

Due to a high courseload and pending deadlines [or research/teaching obligations], I am currently responding to email twice daily at 12pm EST [be sure to indicate your time zone] and 4pm EST.

If you require help with something that can’t wait until either 12pm or 4pm, please call me on my [cell/office phone] at 555-555-5555.

Thank you for understanding. I look forward to working with you this semester.

  • Either in your course syllabus or in your welcoming email, set expectations of what you will or will not respond to.
    • This means letting students know that if there isn’t a question to be answered, you won’t respond to email. This can be helpful for colleagues as well. It cuts down on the back-and-forth correspondence that plagues us all.
    • Here is a template [language modified for educators, particularly those that supervise others]:

Thank you so much for your message. I make every attempt to personally respond to each person who contacts me, but due to the high volume of e-mail I receive, this is sometimes impossible. Please be assured that I have received and have read your email. If your email requires a response, I will reply between the hours of [your email schedule]. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful day!

Ferriss addresses several other tactics for limiting or eliminating digital clutter and the consequent demands on our time that accompany digital correspondence. The full report is available via the link listed below.

By first establishing a relationship through a welcoming email, and making sure to define the expectations and parameters of that relationship, you could increase positive student attitudes about you and your course, increase retention rates, and increase student motivation. As well, you are making sure that you can maintain that digital relationship by setting communication expectations, so you aren’t disappointing or failing to respond to a student, which we all know, can sour the attitude of many a frantic student. It’s equally important to follow through on what you say. If you establish a schedule, stick to it.

I hope this proves helpful for your course and your relationship with students. I’m eager to hear your experience, so please comment or write and tell me what works for you. Have a wonderful semester!

References:

Legg, A. M. & Wilson, J.H. (2009). E-Mail From Professor Enhances Student Motivation and Attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. Available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00986280902960034

Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport-building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, 2, 149–155. Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Ferriss, T. (2007). The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours. ChangeThis, 34(4). Retrieved from http://changethis.com/manifesto/show/34.04.LowInfo.

Posted 3 years ago

Being a Student

by Steve Markoff

Assistant Professor,

Accounting, Law, and Taxation

Montclair State University

As a good friend of mine (and excellent teacher) Joe Hoyle of University of Richmond says, “If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.”  Sometimes it is oh so easy for us to forget what it’s like to be sitting in one of those chairs facing the front of the room, listening to someone spout knowledge about a topic that he or she has been an expert in for perhaps 30 years or more.  Being in charge is a very comfortable feeling.   Sometimes, the only way to understand what it’s like is to literally walk a mile in their moccasins.  So, that’s what I did, and I made some very interesting observations not just about my students, but about my own teaching that I feel are worth sharing.

I’ve always loved learning as much as teaching.  I rarely read a book or watch a TV show unless there is something I can learn.  So, one thing I did to segue into full-time university teaching, was to go back to school and take a college course or two.  Of course, I first chose something that I always loved and wanted to learn more about – astronomy.  I took this course for credit and for a grade, not auditing.  Of course, it did not take much in the way of teacher motivation to get me to tear into the textbook as I was super interested.  Yet I found it kind of odd to be sitting on the other side.  I would wonder “why did the professor say this or skip that?”  I felt some degree of anxiety about raising my hand to ask a question if I wanted to engage in some additional learning.  Oh, and let’s not forget the stress of studying for and taking the two midterms!   I was so nervous to walk up to the front of the lecture hall to get my Scantron card in front of all the students when the professor called my name.  And the heartbreak of getting a 98% and immediately turning to the question I got wrong to see if it was a mistake!  I was determined to get 100% on the next midterm and the final.  And while it was interesting to emotionally and physically get back into what the undergraduate students are facing, something was missing, and I knew what it was – I was taking a course in a subject that I really loved and had wanted to learn even more about for decades!  Preparing for lectures and reading every single word in the textbook, along with the optional software, was an absolute joy.  I figured that, in order to get a real picture of what a typical student goes through, I was going to do what they have to do -  take a course in a subject that I had no background in, had little working knowledge of and which I really didn’t find interesting in the least.  So I chose a physics course. Accounting and physics, what a combo!

The joy I had felt opening up my textbook to do the assigned readings suddenly became laborious work.  I kept asking myself “why was I even doing this?”.  Instead of being prepared ahead of time, I rushed at the last moment to do the assigned work for class.  In fact, I even showed up once without having done it.  I considered not going to class that day. 

I became easily confused as the textbook presented what seemed to be a never-ending group of formulas.  The lectures didn’t help either.  The professor proceeded to turn the lights down as we listened and watched the PowerPoint.  Oh my, staying awake was very hard.  If I had some popcorn, I would be all set!  When I raised my hand to ask a question, I felt almost silly.  Was I the only one with this question?  Why did others seem to understand this and not me?  The professor’s explanation rarely helped, but I didn’t want to hold up the class. I remember being so confused that I wouldn’t even ask a question.

When it came to the test, I wasn’t wondering if I got 100% either.  Finding time to study seemed difficult – everything else seemed more important.  It’s amazing how many other things there are to do when the alternative is studying for a class in a subject that isn’t interesting and that you don’t really want to learn.

If all this kind of sounds familiar, but from the other side of the podium, take heart.  From this exercise – by being a student – the one without the knowledge – I came away with some very important things that have improved my teaching:

  1.  Respecting my students for what they are, rather than being frustrated that they aren’t what I think they should be.  It’s very easy when I am the expert in the classroom.  Things that are obvious to me might be total mysteries to my students.  Sometimes, they might appear to be unable to make what seems to be the simplest connections.
  2.  The importance of creating a big enough “WHY”.  The big difference between the astronomy and the physics was my personal “WHY” – in the first case I understood at a very deep level why I wanted to learn the material in the course.  In the physics course, I wasn’t there to really learn it.  From this, I’ve discovered that, as the leader of the group, I have tremendous power over how my students perceive the material.  Getting them to become engaged and really WANT TO soak up the knowledge is my most important task from day one.
  3.  The importance of stepping stones and sequencing.  In the physics course, I noticed a definite pattern in the class.  When the pace moved too slow, more people seemed bored – even me!  Sometimes though, it seemed like things were moving too fast, and then it became frustrating.  Furthermore, I noticed quite a few times that I couldn’t follow something, only to find the missing link a little while later.  As an expert in my own area, it’s often difficult to know what the proper spacing of the key learning points is for the students, and what the proper sequence should be.

I now look at my students with much more awareness.  I learned a bit more patience if they don’t grasp the concepts immediately, and that I have to be flexible in this area.  I learned to respect them for what they ARE, and see them as they CAN BE.   And I’m a lot more careful about putting together the learning steps and trying to be aware about how far apart they are, and what order they are in.