Writing is about communication. Regardless of technology – whether you’re speaking to the group or sending out an e-mail – you need to set an example for your students. E-mails, in particular, offer a good example of how to start.
First, show students why what you’re saying is important. Subject lines should be direct and to-the-point. Subjects like “Tomorrow’s Quiz Cancelled” and “ENG 101 Final Project Guidelines” allow students to prioritize when they’ll read the e-mails – they might not even need to open the first one, and they’ll be able to easily find the second one later. A subject like “Important!” or “You’ll need to know this…” tells a student virtually nothing about the e-mail contents – as a result, many students won’t open these e-mails when they arrive, and they won’t know to look for them later.
Tip: when trying to reach a particular student (particulary a student who’s falling behind), put that students name in the subject line. When I see an e-mail with the subject “Hey Ryan: Your Absences,” you better believe I’ll open it. If there’s an e-mail with the subject “Attendance Policy…”, I might assume it’s a reminder being sent out to the entire class – and for students who are falling behind in the classes, there’s not much incentive to open those everyday reminders. (This is particularly important if you’re missing an assignment from a student and need it right away – students respond to a subject like “Hey, Ryan, I need your project by midnight…”)
Next, use your e-mails to set a tone for your course. Would you like your course to be welcoming? To be positive? Make sure to include something fun and reassuring in your e-mails. Lines like “All students need to be on time every day or they might lose 10% from the final grade” will set a tone that might discourage students. Instead, you could write “I’ve set an attendance policy to encourage everyone to be on-time every day so that we can all learn effectively. However, if you miss more than three classes, you’ll lose a third of a letter grade for each absence.” Note the inclusion of a specific policy and reasons for it – this reassures students that there are policies, and that you are open about discussing the reasoning behind them.
Tip: As a smaller note, e-mail is the best time to let students know how you’d like to be addressed – and, most importantly, be consistent. I have a professional e-mail signature giving my first and last name, my position as a Ph.D. student, and the course website. However, above my signature, I always sign my name “Ryan” so students know that I prefer to be called by my first name. If I went by “Mr. Edel,” then I’d probably use the signature by itself. However, as a graduate student, I am always confused by professors who sign e-mails with their initials, or those who introduce themselves as Dr. ______, but then sign their e-mails with a first name. It’s difficult to know how to address the reply.
Finally, as with any technology, you need to decide the role you’d like e-mail to play in your classroom. It’s a great medium for providing individualized feedback and answering specific questions about grades. However, do you want students flooding your inbox with all of their assignments? Are you ready for the day when eight students e-mail you with the same question – and you can tell that there are at least eight more with the same question? For assignments, I recommend using ReggieNet in order to keep track of assignments and send out grades – as a general rule, you should not be e-mailing grades because it may lead to a FERPA violation, and ReggieNet can file all the assignments exactly where they’re supposed to be. For questions, I recommend using a discussion board that you and your students can check every day – I use Facebook myself, but a ReggieNet forum works well, too. If a student asks a question, you want everyone to see that question, have a chance to offer their own thoughts, and then see your own reply. With e-mail, you can send out broad replies to repeated questions, but discussion boards allow for more of a conversation with students.