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Facilitating Communication with Email Templates

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1804

Email templates can help address the more transactional emails, which then frees our time for more meaningful communication with students

Folks:

The posting below describes a technique that can be used to make you more efficient in your interactions with students particularly during this time that most of us are online.  It is from book The Productive Online and Offline Professor: A Practical Guide, by Bonni Stachowiak. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. https://sty.presswarehouse.com/books/features.aspx [E1]

Copyright © 2020 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Opinion: The Isolated Scientist

 

 

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

 

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Facilitating Communication with Email Templates

 

The goal of increased efficiency is to have more time to be present for our students and all the other people who are important to us in our lives. That is vital to being someone who supports students in their learning. However, there will frequently be interactions with students that are more transactional than acting as mentors and coaches for them.

When we respond to these more transactional emails, we can fall into one of two categories: first, reiterating to students information that has already been communicated in other ways (e.g., the course syllabus, in our prior emails or announcements), and, second, refusing to answer their questions because the information can be found elsewhere, or we otherwise do not see it as our role to assist them with their query.   

Instead of choosing one of those two extremes we can fall somewhere in the middle. We can empower students to have a better appreciation for what is available to them in the course or other materials. Additionally, we can reinforce that we are here to support them in what can often be an overwhelming process of learning to navigate higher education (whether they just graduated from high school or have not taken a course in years).     

Email templates can help address the more transactional emails, which then frees our time for more meaningful communication with students. Schmitz (2013) stresses, “If you feel like you’re typing the same emails frequently, it’s time to streamline this. There’s no point in typing the same emails over and over again” (para 22). Email templates can help in answering frequent questions and requests.

Frequent Questions and Requests

Consider questions you frequently receive while teaching an online course. Perhaps the following are familiar:     

·      Your office hours/ways to get additional assistance

·      Requests for letters of recommendation

·      Your discipline (in my case, a student who is thinking about starting a business and wants to know how to explore ideas)

·      When an assignment is due, or more clarification on how to approach getting started with it

·      General questions about grades

Frustration can easily set in when you find that students are asking questions that you have already provided answers to. Instead, think of the benefits of creating a climate in your course where students feel that you are supporting them in their learning. What a student is inquiring about may not relate to your goals of mentoring her to get into her preferred graduate program, but it could be a small step toward building trust that eventually gets the two of you to that point down the road. 

At the same time, do not waste your time on the less important task of providing information that could be found elsewhere. By creating a series of templates for emails that you commonly send, you free up your time to connect with your students in more meaningful ways. 

Redirect Back to Resources

Rather than stating that something can be found under week 2 of your online course, use a link that takes students directly to that spot. Yes, it does take a bit more time to provide a link, instead of just typing that information to send the students back into the course, but I find that using the link means that I take the opportunity to make sure I am sending the person to the correct place. Plus, this allows me to reassess my own course navigation choices, to see if I have made things confusing by how I have structured that portion of the course.

Err on the Side of Kindness

It is easy to forget how intimidating we can be as professors. We can also lack empathy in recalling the difficulty of going back to school or starting a new program that is structured entirely different from anything we have yet to encounter in our educational experiences. When structuring email reply templates, build kindness into the process. Instead of the shaming approach (“I already provided you with that information in the syllabus”), you can alter that a bit and write something like the following: 

“That information may be found in the syllabus [provide link]. There’s a lot of information in there that will help you achieve your goals in this course, so take another look at it this week. Specifically, the details regarding that assignment are on page 8. I am glad you are already thinking ahead to the weeks to come. See you online this week.” 

Saving and Accessing Email Templates

There are plenty of places you might store your email templates. You could have them in Microsoft Word, for example, but I would recommend against that. Most important, you would have to open up Microsoft Word to access them and then copy/paste them into your email program. Also, Microsoft Word is notorious for having additional hidden formatting that you cannot see in your text but can create issues when pasting in an HTML editor, which some email clients have for composing emails. Even if that is not going to be an issue for the email client you use, there are still better options available. 

Email Drafts Folder

Whether you use Outlook, Gmail, or another email client, there is a folder for drafts that is used to hold on to emails as you are composing them. If your email client crashes while you’re writing an email, you usually can go back in and find it stored in the drafts folder/section of the email client. 

If you use a smartphone or tablet for composing emails, or you have more than one computer, it may be worth setting up your various email clients/applications to all use the same drafts folder. If you start writing an email on your smartphone and you are not quite finished, you can always save it to your drafts and pick it back up later when you are working on your computer. While the process to accomplish this varies, typically, as you start to close the email, your email client/application will ask if you want to save it as a draft.       

Although I make use of drafts for specific emails that I am working on, I do not typically use it for templates that I know I will use multiple times down the road. The email clients I use do not allow for enough organization to leverage drafts as much as I might like for templates. Instead, I use an application type known as text expansion.

Text Expansion Application

A text expansion program allows you to keep as many email templates (among other things) as you want for reuse down the road. The most popular text expansion application as of this writing is called TextExpander and is available on both Mac and Windows operating systems. You can organize email templates within TextExpander by class or by function in folders. Then, when you’re ready to use one of them, you just type a few characters that you have predetermined will trigger an action to then “expand” into your full email template. This may be accomplished on a computer or on a mobile device.        

If you have an email that you always send at the start of week 4, for example, you could use these characters as the trigger: ze-mailw4. As soon as you type in those characters, they will be replaced with the text from your email template. Part Four provides more information about text expansion applications as well as how to be more productive using TextExpander.

Notebook Application

Email templates can also be stored within a notebook or notes application. The advantage of this method is that the organizational structure of the program can be set up to our precise specifications. The disadvantage is that we have to open the application each time we are going to send one of these template emails, and then the specific email will need to be located.

Regardless of which method you choose for storing email templates, relocate them as your needs change. The important thing is to start building a database of email templates and to begin freeing up your time for more meaningful interaction with your students. It is also helpful to periodically go through the email templates you have developed and determine whether any course design adjustments can be made that would negate or reduce the nee