Improving The Professionalism Of Student Emails

As a modern academic, my email inbox is continually overflowing with emails from students, asking questions and seeking advice. However, many students seem completely unaware that sending emails brings with it the need for a form of etiquette. This is not the same as sending a quick chatty message to a friend.

Bad email habits are not only frustrating, but they stand a real danger of ruling students out from work opportunities. There is an art to sending an email. My belief is that this needs to be taught at school and reinforced at university in a similar way to writing formal letters was taught in former years.

All too often, bad emails do not even make it into my inbox.

The university I work for currently has a clear format for staff emails, but many students ignore it, choosing to abbreviate my name, or attach it to be student email domain. None of these approaches will ever reach me (in fact, the latter will likely end up with a student who is unlucky enough to share the same name as me).

Likewise, our university spam filter is very unforgiving for emails that are short or not properly structured.

Here are a few tips for students who are sending emails to academic staff and who would like a sensible and considered reply.

1. Is an email really necessary?

Being a university student, there is an expectation that you should be able to research and find information. I continually get sent emails asking questions that are clearly answered in module notes, or which could be solved by a quick search on the internal university systems.

2. Is the email going to the correct person?

Again, this is one of those questions that can often be answered through some quick research using the university systems, but it is pointless sending me questions about assignments on modules taught by other people, because I am not equipped to answer them (and even where I have some idea of the answer, it would still not be appropriate for me to take the place of, and possibly contradict, another member of staff). Likewise, the university has a large team of people to deal with administrative issues.

3. Not every email can be dealt with immediately

Sending an urgent message a few hours before a deadline will not always lead to a response. Likewise, sending an email that requires a lot of work, or needs to go to another person, will be put to one side until the right amount of time can be devoted to it. Likewise, whilst I personally have been known to check emails at odd times of the day and night, this can’t be an expectation, and there are often times when I am traveling and unable to answer emails (or at least the associated information needed for a sensible response).

4. Email is not a substitute to class attendance

I can’t reteach a class that has been missed using email. Period. If this has been missed for some unforeseeable reason, such as illness, I will try and help to recap important points at another time, but there is a limit to how much support can be provided through email. This is particularly true for mathematical and technical subjects, which do not translate well to email.

5. Don’t send the email in the form of a video

This is one of those growing trends, to record a video and send this to be watched and responded on. It’s very unlikely I can do this. My desk in the office isn’t set up to view videos, and frankly I don’t have the time to deal with this. In order to have any chance of answering emails, I also answer them on my phone when I’m away from my desk.

6. Treat every email as if it would be viewed by an employer

That means that it needs to be written using correct and sensible English, with capital letters in the right place. I have great difficulty deciphering emails sent with abbreviated words.

7. Send all academic contact from a professional email address

Generally, all contact should come from a student email address. Not some random Hotmail account. Otherwise, there’s just no way to decide whether this is the correct students asking for information, or someone else trying to fish out information. Likewise, I also can’t respond to questions about progress from parents and guardians, since this is an environment full of adults and it would be a breach of data protection to give out that information.

8. Provide the information necessary to receive an answer

When I get sent a short email saying something like “when it the exam?“, it’s impossible to answer it. Students often assume that I only teach one subject, when in fact I am currently coordinating five modules this year (plus the BSc Computer Science course at Birmingham City University). The largest module I coordinate has 370 students on it. That question could relate to any of those subjects. That is before the fact that anyway I will refer students to their individual exam timetable, since I have no direct access to see what rooms have been allocated.

9. Don’t overload me with information

Brevity (within the bounds of politeness) is important. That’s one reason why many staff are starting to communicate directly with student groups through Twitter, rather than by using email at all. This also means that emails should be kept to the point. This is particularly true when sending attachments. I get students every year emailing massive project reports which take a while to download and open, and for which it is then impossible to comment with any depth. As well as filling up my inbox, potentially meaning that emails from other students are not received, this is inconsiderate. a short attachment, with a set of associated questions is fine, or alternatively these can be saved until a more appropriate time such as a scheduled class or meeting.

10. Use a community to answer where possible

I find that one of the best places to ask questions is on the Moodle site for each of my modules, or in another similar community. That means that all the staff and students involved with the module can help to supply an answer, rather than just me alone. It also means that there is often no need for students to continue to ask similar questions.

11. Include a subject line

Although options for contact like Facebook messaging do not require a subject line, a traditional email does. I have rules set up to help me to automatically filter and manage my email. I also scan subject lines to help me to find emails I can answer quickly, so that simple question are not kept waiting, as well as to find information I need in my email inbox at a later date. Every email should have a clear subject line covering the topic of the email (not blank, and certainly not a subject line like “Hi”).

12. Focus the emails for one person

Another trend I’ve seen is students simply including a load of staff names in an email and sending it out to all of them. The net result? It’s likely that staff will assume that the email is not intended for them, or that someone else will answer. Then, no answer will ever be received. Likewise, sending the same email to multiple staff, but sent separately, is also frowned upon. It’s just wasting staff members time and duplicating effort.


What Do You Think?

Those are just some of my observations about poor quality emails. I’m sure there are a lot more I could include, as I come across bad examples of emails every day (but I would not want to share them, to protect the guilty).

What other help would you offer for students looking to send emails? Do you feel that this is a problem? Do you have any good Open Educational Resources to share? Feel free to share your thoughts, and perhaps there will be enough material for a follow-on article.

Social Media Branding For Computing Professionals

Here’s a copy of a talk that I delivered for the Cheltenham and Gloucester branch of the British Computer Society.

The talk is designed to show some of the methods that I’ve identified for Computing Professionals to build a professional brand online, primarily by using social media and their own professional websites.

To keep this presentation light, I’ve included plenty of examples. These are based on my experience, from work I’ve done with students and from other professionals I know who use social media in their business.

The slides are hosted in my SlideShare account (Thomas Lancaster on SlideShare).

The correct use of social media by students is a particularly hot issue within teaching right now.

I do believe that helping students to build their own personal brand whilst they are studying will help them with their long-term career.