Blog Post

Teaching Professionalism with Student E-mail

Each week during the semester, it is not uncommon for me to receive over a hundred—and sometimes more than two hundred—e-mails from students. The subject line for nearly 100% of the e-mails begin with the course number, the subject of the message, and the student’s name. The body of most e-mails my students send to me begin with “Dear Dr. Berg,” have a well written message that is articulate and grammatically correct and end with the student’s full name. The professionalism is typically excellent. 

Based on what I hear from colleagues, the excellent quality of the e-mail I receive from students is not typical.  So why are my students’ e-mails so markedly different than the e-mails that are received by colleagues? The answer is simple. Instead of bemoaning my student’s lack of skill, I teach them the skills they need for success.

I do not assume that students are adept at the skills they need to succeed in the courses I teach prior to being taught those skills in the class. As a result, I design a series of assignments that allow my students to practice, get feedback, learn from their mistakes, and improve.  I apply this strategy to e-mail as well as to other assignments.

Because I know that students do not learn a skill from simply reading about it, I am not content to just include a section in my syllabus that explains e-mail guidelines.   Therefore, an assignment I give on the first day of class asks students to send me an e-mail in proper format before the beginning of the second day of class.

When giving this assignment, I distribute a handout that re-enforces the information found in the syllabus.  When I go over the handout, I provide an explanation for the rules so that students understand that I am not simply being arbitrary.  For example, I tell students that it is to their advantage to begin their subject line with the course number because I read student e-mail before answering other e-mail. Later, I explain how I sort e-mail by subject line and that e-mail that does not begin with the course number can easily be missed.

Although the directions on the handout are explicitly clear, some students still make errors. No matter how clear I am or how easy the task, errors are to be expected because we all make errors when learning new skills.  I provide feedback to those who make mistakes and allow them to resubmit the assignment.

As the semester continues, I incorporate other lessons about professionalism, e-mail etiquette, and the reasons why the guidelines I require are to their advantage.  I might tell the story of the representative from a textbook publisher who sent me an e-mail filled with grammar errors.  Students laugh at the punch line—“Imagine! Grammar errors from someone who wants me to buy textbooks from her company!”  The humor underscores the serious consequences for those such as the publisher’s representative who do not understand the basic expectations of professionalism.

I frequently print out e-mails I receive from non-students and share them with my students; both good and bad examples. Once, I showed students an e-mail I had received from another publisher’s representative; an e-mail that began “Stephen.” My students were surprised that someone I did not know would begin an e-mail by addressing me by my first name. Then, students realized that the publisher’s representative had spelled my name wrong. When one student asked if I was going to decline his e-mail, I answered, “I have no obligation to him. I’m just going to delete it.”  Only students are guaranteed second chances.

Specific stories are better teaching tools than general statements about the need for professionalism.   For example, I reported that a staff member from our college foundation mentioned that students sometimes lose scholarships because of poorly written applications that include grammar mistakes, spelling errors, emoticons, and a lack of capital letters.  Getting scholarships is not a theoretical issue for students.  Being eliminated as a candidate for a scholarship is something with which they can identify. 

I joke with students that I don’t require professionalism only because I am an egomaniac who wants to be a jerk. I require professionalism so that they can learn from their mistakes in my class where the stakes are low. Generally, the most serious consequence for making an error in my class is that the student gets a second chance. Outside my classroom—such as when students apply for scholarships, jobs, and so forth—there are no second chances. Because the job or scholarship would have already been given to someone else, a potential employer or selection committee is not going to respond, “It’s OK. Just resubmit your application.”

It is easy to complain that students should know how to act professionally before they enter our classrooms. It is also easy to teach them how to conduct themselves as professionals as we cover our academic content. Not only does such instruction benefit our students, it also benefits us.


A version of this blog posting was originally published on Etena Sacca-vajjena.


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