Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below offers some valuable insights on the opportunities e-mail
presents in teaching and learning. It is from the Teaching Toolbox section
of the American Society of Engineering Education's [http://www.asee.org/]
magazine, ASEE Prism - Exploring the Future of Engineering Education
[http://www.asee.org/], February 2001, Vol. 10 No. 6, pp. 34-35. Copyright ?
2001, ASEE, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: The Delicate Balance Between Leadership and Teamwork
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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USING E-MAIL TO COMMUNICATE WITH STUDENTS CAN MAKE YOU A BETTER
TEACHER - AND INCREASE CLASS PARTICIPATION
Using e-mail to communicate with students can make you a better
teacher - and increase class participation.
By Kerry Hannon
Last spring, when University of Maryland Journalism professor Willie
Schatz kiddingly e-mailed his students that class was canceled the
following day due to his birthday, half of them took it seriously and
didn't show up for class. He meant it as a joke, but, hey, it was the
perfect excuse for students to take a breather on a beautiful
sun-kissed day to toss the frisbee around on the quad or sleep a bit
later. "I never thought for a nanosecond they would take it
seriously,"says Schatz. "I even said that the university president
had signed off on it and had declared it a holiday for the entire
Schatz thought he was being funny and reaching out to them on a
personal level-or maybe he was merely trying to rustle up birthday
cards-but communicating via e-mail can cause its share of
misunderstandings. Schatz learned his lesson, and he didn't penalize
the students who took him at his word. After all, if the professor
was humorously canceling class, then that was his prerogative. The
few who did show up had a great private session.
But while some professors at universities across the country still
refuse to use e-mail as a teaching tool, it's here to stay as a quick
and easy way to communicate with students. Though not a replacement
for the classroom and face-to face contact, it is a reinforcement, a
lifeline, an open door even after office hours are over.
While e-teaching has rapidly become an essential tool for professors
in all disciplines, engineering professors have had to jump-start
their computer prowess faster than others to keep up with their
techno-savvy students. "Computers have taken the place of the slide
rule," says Julie E. Sharp, associate professor of the Practice of
Technical Communication in the chemical engineeringdepartment at
"Today's students are so agile with a computer that you can post a
handout on the Web, answer questions a shy student might not want to
ask in class, or give bulletins about scheduling changes, among other
things," she says. Moreover, you can remind students about papers
that are due and give them tips to help them succeed. "It's a
just-in-time kind of thing," she says. "It's helping them immediately
when they need it."
Students today keep a hectic pace. Many are involved in
extracurricular activities or jobs that conflict with a professor's
office hours. Encouraging students to e-mail their papers, if they
feel they are running hard against the deadline, is a great option
and may ultimately produce a better result. Those few additional
hours can make all the difference.
Here's another thought to consider: Listening and remembering seem to
be a problem for many students in today's fast-paced world, says
Sharp, who has been a professor for 25 years. "If you send your
students an e-mail either individually or as a group, they can refer
to it. It's a reminder. They don't lose it like they might a class
E-mail does seem to help improve student learning and participation,
according to the professors Prism interviewed. Sharp actually
conducted a two-semester study of 59 students to get their feedback
on how it's working from their perspective. She says her students
concur that it's a great way to turn in work, receive information
about an assignment, and get help. It also increases interaction
between professor and student. And education is all about
TIPS FOR USING IT
Here are some techniques that Sharp's study indicated are effective:
Install virus protection software and keep it updated. At the
beginning of the course get the preferred e-mail addresses from
students. Announce the course requirements for checking e-mail. Make
your e-mail subject lines as specific as possible--you don't want
them to get confused with the mail from Mom. Check your student
e-mail at least once and preferably twice a day. Also check messages
the evening before a major assignment is due; there could be some
folks out there with dire last-minute questions. Send a mass e-mail
with tips for success no later than one day before a major assignment
Most students have their own computers or have access to computers at
the engineering schools, so it shouldn't be a problem to get this
line of communication rolling--though you should check early on in
the course to make sure everyone can pick up messages. According to
Sharp's study, students check e-mail more frequently than printed
class materials and want messages with information about their
assignments. Sharp swears by the rule of one e-mail a week, but
answers individual messages every weekday and Sunday night.
Computers can also boost the person-to-person connection that helps
the education process. Of course, students want the option of meeting
with the professor and want to know what the office hours are, just
in case they can amble by for a chat.
But computer communication is definitely a different animal. You'll
be dissed for being long-winded; communicating succinctly seems to be
de rigueur. E-mail messages from professors should be relatively
short, according to Sharp's study of her students. And, whenever
possible, trash the attachments.
If you're still unsure, how's this for a vote of confidence about
using e-mail in your teaching? "Few of my professors communicate by
e-mail," wrote one Vanderbilt engineering student surveyed by Sharp.
" Those that do, I feel, care enough about their students to give
little reminders or words of encouragement that I appreciate greatly.
Come to think if it, it's discouraging to think I have so many
professors that don't have those extra 10-15 minutes a week to have
any sort of extra communication with their class that they themselves
In no way should professors limit themselves to e-mail, or think of
e-mail as a strategy to take them off the hook of physically
teaching. But it is, without question, a great way to build a bond by
reaching out to students and letting them know that you are there to
help. After all, you want them to succeed.
So, if a student has a question at two in the morning, they can ask
it. Hopefully, you'll get to it in the morning before class and deal
with it, quickly and privately. You can also get papers outside of
normal classroom hours and they can meet the deadline. It helps you
to be, in other words, the "guide on the side" rather than always
being the "sage on the stage."
There's more though, of course. You can use e-mail to highlight major
points made in class, to mention things you forgot to bring up in
class, or to give a heads-up about an unexpected absence. (Not like
Schatz's, mind you.)
And, of course, there are some drawbacks. All students must have
computer access, attaching files can often be problematic. For
example, America Online users still can't download most files from
other Internet carriers, so you have to paste them into an e-mail
In the end, remember to make it short and sweet. But keep in touch.
You've got mail.
Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.