In the past, I’ve written about responding to difficult student emails. But I hadn’t considered writing about email etiquette with students until asked to do so by a reader. What does it mean to have good email etiquette? We have a sense of what it means to use the phone well, but email hasn’t yet established many formal rules. And when it comes to communicating with students, there are even more stipulations; what is appropriate with our colleagues might not be okay with students. Here are my thoughts on email etiquette with students.
Before thinking about specific tips, it is valuable to determine the purpose of the specific behavior before attempting to suggest etiquette. For example, why is it appropriate etiquette to send thank-you cards after receiving gifts? The answer lies in the goal–expressing gratitude–while sending the cards is simply the action to achieve the goal. Obviously, etiquette is far more complicated than this, but thinking about the goals of email with students offers a useful starting point.
The goal, first and foremost, is to send information efficiently. Email is a great platform for student communication because it is fast, mobile, and produces a written record. Email can also go out to many people at once, enabling communication with a whole class. Second, because email has become a more professional communication channel, it is important to model good email behavior for students. Finally, email is useful because it provides a personal link between instructor and student (something that should be embraced, but only up to a point). With these goals in mind, let’s consider some principles of email etiquette with students.
1. Be a reliable communicator.
Instructors should respond to student emails quickly and reliably. I suggest a promised turnaround time of 24 hours. This window is small enough for students to feel their emails are taken seriously, but big enough that most instructors should have no difficulty complying. An instructor might reason that weekends are different, but the goals of email remain the same no matter the day of the week. We want students to see email as an efficient means of communicating. Thus checking and responding to email a couple times over the weekend is a small price to pay for meeting the goal.
2. Be a clear communicator.
This comes down to knowing the limits of email. If explaining something over email takes multiple paragraphs, consider if it would be better to meet with the student in person or announce the information during lecture. If you feel that the information is explained well in a long email (perhaps because it produces a written record students can refer back to), think of the likelihood that students will read the email thoroughly. Many may skim through it and not get the key information. If insisting upon email, then consider also mentioning the information in person and referring the students back to the email if they have questions.
3. Model good email behavior.
I tell my students every semester, “If you don’t use email now, then it’s a good time to start. When you get into the real world, you won’t have a choice about using it.” Instructors serve as role models for students in many ways, so it is good to think of email as a time to set a positive example. This means you should begin your emails with a salutation, use complete sentences, and end with a closing and signature. You should also proofread your emails carefully. Not all email needs to follow such a rigid format, and over time, norms develop about how email should look. For example, formatting in emails with friends may be far different from formal emails with journal editors. With students, it is best to err on the side of formality.
4. Delete before sending and start again, when necessary.
The speed of email means an exchange can approach real-time communication. If you and a student are both using your computers, then you can exchange multiple messages over the course of a few minutes. This is great, because one goal with email is to establish a personal connection between student and instructor. But in some cases–perhaps the student is complaining about something, for example–you may let your emotions get the better of you. If you find your responses veering toward the obstinate, then delete the email and start again. Even better, use that 24 hour window as a buffer and wait to respond until you’ve had time to think about the situation more carefully. Lee Iacocca suggests that good news be delivered in writing (a lasting record of accomplishment) while bad news be delivered verbally. This can be a good practice with students as well.
5. Let students know your email preferences in advance.
Everyone has different email abilities and preferences. I am a reliable communicator over email, because I use an email client (Apple’s Mail is my favorite) that stays running on my computer at all time. But there remain some things for which I prefer to meet in person: talking about a paper, answering questions about exam material, and working together to solve a problem. For these items, I tell my students to come to office hours, and if an email exchange heads into these territories, I put a stop to it as soon as I can. Doing this doesn’t have to sound heavy-handed; write something like this, “The more I think about it, it seems like I can give you the best help if we find a time to meet in person. Can you make it to my next office hours?”. Students should know your email preferences for their own behavior as well. It is important to remind students that they need to be checking their email regularly. This makes the channel a more useful form of communication.
I hope most of this guidance is common sense. Handling email is no different from handling any form of communication, except that we can get a lot of email. But imagine what would happen if we received phone calls equal to the number of emails we get: We would devise a system, set expectations appropriately, and try to make it work. But email behavior has had less time to develop, and it sometimes isn’t clear if email is more like text messages, phone calls, business memos, or formal letters. It can share similarities with all these forms of communication. Email etiquette, like most general etiquette, comes down to a few simple rules. Be courteous, kind, and generous. Following these rules will make you a good emailer, and even more importantly, a good person.