Finally Found: The Golden Fleece to Improve Student Correspondence to a Professor!


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THE PROBLEM. “Dear (I forgot your name) professor” … “”Could give more clarification about the thing you mentioned in that section of my paper where I discussed it like you told me?” … [first sentence of first paragraph] “I DONT KNOW WHY YOU AINT SEEING MY RESPONSES IN DISCUSSION!” … [first few sentences of first paragraph] “I had to pick up my dog, then I was working late, so when I came home I first had to make dinner, and by the time that was over my favorite TV program was on. Now is when I write you” … [contents of paper / closing salutation] – no student name.  As online educators these snippets from student correspondence – and many similar ones – can seem very familiar.  We read, scratch our heads, and let out a “Huh?” or “Wha? or “Who?”  or “Hmmm,” all because the student’s writing to us was muddy, murky, or misty. So … how can this be corrected in a polite yet successful way?

THE FAILURES. There are “the usual suspects,” of course: a mini response or a mini-lesson on why what the student wrote just didn’t pass muster, and then showing how it could be improved; a course posting–perhaps an Infographic–on what good correspondence resembles; and/or a checklist of what TO do and what NOT to do for successful correspondence to a professor. Each of these can be successful, of course, but in my many years of teaching online I have found these approaches also can quickly gather dust as never-again-read after their initial burst onto the classroom stage. Why? The reason is a simple one: they ask to be read, but nothing more, and students have so many hemidemisemiquavers in their life, both in the class and outside, that to put such instruction into use might just not occur.

THE SOLUTION. And so I kept receiving student correspondence that resulted in bottles of Maalox and sleepless nights, and leading me, slowly but oh-so-surely, into a second career as a cryptographer. That is, until one night, when a student sent me an email, beginning with this wonderful, award-winning line: “Professor Sull, you previously commented on how I needed to improve my emails to you; could you tell me where this one could be improved?” Yes, there it was: an interactive solution to my student-to-professor-correspondence problem–give the students a really, really, really poor example of an email, as if I were the student and my students were the professors, and ask them how it might be improved!

THE RESULT. I tried this student’s suggestion, with fingers, toes, and elbows crossed, and how excited was I when the responses started coming in. What I would have instructed my students was instead coming from them; receiving such a poorly structured email gave them pause to act, then react. After one week of this I did three things to cap my experiment: (1) I posted my original email in class, followed by the same email that contained the suggestions students made; (2) I reminded students that correspondence they send to a professor is great training and reminders of the correspondence they will need to send in a professional employment setting; (3) and that they will always be judged by others based on their ability to write, and they always want to be judged well.

THE REALITY. Oh, please don’t think me a wizard or magician; by no means did this “cure” every student piece of correspondence to me. What you read in my opening paragraph still found their way to my in box. But my joy, and thus my reason for deeming it successful, was the overall quality of improvement I saw; it was delightful! And when a teaching strategy works for me, I enjoy sharing it with my colleagues.

YOUR SHOT. I’m going to play “Pretend” … the email below might have been written from a student to a faculty member. Blogs, as you know, are interactive critters, so do a rewrite of this email (make any edits/additions/subtractions you believe are necessary). Post it here so we all can get input on approaches we can take to help students improve their correspondence to us:

THE NEED TO WRITE YOU ISS ONE TO WITCH I WISH TO DO BECAUSE MY WIFE TOLDE ME ITS IMPORTANT TO CONTACT MY PROFESSOR. I GAVEYOU MY ASSIGNMENT AN D YOU COMMENTED ON TWO ITEMS WITCH YOU DID NOT CLEAR. IT WOOD BE GREAT TO GET MORE INFORMATION. I ALSO WOOD APRECIATE HELP ON MY COMMENTS IN PAST SEMINARS BECAUSE U SEEMED NOT PLEASED WITH TWO OF MY CONTRIBUTIONS. COULD YOU ALSO HELP ME WITH THIS?

FINAL NOTE. Writing, as we know, is extremely individualistic; a class of 30 students will have each student send correspondence that will differ in tone, writing ability, and content. Yet there are also basics of writing for any email that must come into play; these are the components on which I focus. When it comes to the tone–and sometimes content–of a student’s correspondence, it can reveal bits and pieces of what’s going on in a student’s life. This can give us added important information to better understand, and thus assist, our students. And how sweet that is!

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