A recent Pathify study reported the average click rate of emails in higher ed is less than 7%, even though email is the primary mode many institutions use to communicate important information to faculty, staff, and students. Right before the Pandemic, I also discovered that student responses to my emails had noticeably declined.  More students were missing programmatic and institutional events and due dates and since then, the trend has become even more pronounced. 

Around the same time student responses to emails declined, I also learned that my students were establishing group chats with classmates, cohorts, and friends to gather and quickly convey information: “Dr. Reeves, I heard in the group chat that…” I initially resisted this style of communication with students thinking it was too informal; but ultimately, it embodied student-centered approaches to communication that I couldn’t ignore.

As students’ email responses dwindled, a former colleague introduced me to the idea of using Google chat during office hours. There were several reasons students did not attend office hours, including living and working off campus or feeling too shy to attend office hours in person.  So my colleague began opening chat windows during her regularly scheduled office hours as a possible mode of communication. She discovered that chat messages appealed more to students than in-person meetings. As more students contacted her in Google, she found out the chat option allowed her to build out-of-class relationships with her students, answer questions about her courses and student career prospects, and to reach more students than geographically bound office hours permitted (this was pre-pandemic). The chat meetings also allowed her to strengthen her rapport with students and to identify course content students asked the most questions about or needed the most guidance on. After implementing the Google chat during office hours, my colleague’s course evaluations reflected that she was more accessible and responded quickly to students’ needs. 

As we both started using Google chat during office hours, students shared with us that they were using texting apps like Discord, WhatsApp, and cell phone text messaging groups to keep in touch with classmates. Some cohorts assigned a student representative to each of their shared courses and that student would then share in the group chat any information from the faculty that came through in course announcements or emails. In other words, students were organizing to streamline communication and to make information-sharing more efficient.

When students were asked why they preferred sharing information over chat instead of email, they said they knew the chat messages were specific to their learning and experiences whereas many of the emails overwhelming their inboxes were general announcements about campus events that didn’t really have much to do with their personal needs or experiences. Since the pandemic, faculty are using chat features in more and more dynamic ways. (Check out these examples and see if they’ll complement your instructional style). 

An EAB report confirmed students’ observations about email content, indicating that some college students receive as many as 400 institutional emails a year, making the once selective form of communication feel less personal. If faculty wish to increase student interaction with course-specific or advisor-specific email messages, Stacey Johnson at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching suggests writing short messages, using a specific and descriptive subject line, sending messages at a consistent time of day/day in the week, and addressing students by name.  

There are other ways to share course information with students, too. In the past, I’ve had several assignments that students always asked similar questions about. After clarifying the instructions and providing exemplars, I also added a Q and A section within the assignment instructions with past students’ common questions and the responses I provided. As I taught more and more online courses, I started creating a Q and A section on the objectives and introduction page for each module. Just like in face to face courses, students doubt themselves especially at the beginning of an online course or at the beginning of a degree experience. Giving them tools and information that create autonomy can build their confidence, affirm that other people have the same questions as they do, and let them move forward with assignments and coursework without having to wait for email responses from faculty. Of course, this doesn’t work for all student questions, but in my courses, it reduced anxiety and increased student persistence.

Assignment feedback is also a great way to communicate with students. Using self-grading quizzes or other assignments is one way to give students immediate quantitative feedback. However, giving students individualized qualitative feedback, particularly at the beginning of a course, is a powerful form of communication, as well. Through feedback, students discover that we are monitoring their progress and we can identify gaps in their prior knowledge and give them the tools to address those gaps. We can send students resources, including examples, connect them to campus academic support resources, and encourage them to establish study groups. Blackboard Ultra is making student feedback easier to give than ever. For example, if you notice students with similar feedback needs, you can reuse and update feedback you’ve given elsewhere by creating a reusable bank of comments.  You can also create video and audio feedback to walk students through feedback points. In this case, consider identifying 2-3 teaching points and create success-oriented feedback to help students improve on the next submission. Also, if you use success-oriented feedback, consider using success-oriented grading. Success-oriented grading recognizes that students are learning content in our classes and may benefit from low grade, no grade, or completion grades at the beginning of the course as they build confidence and knowledge.  

Designing student-centered communication practices can be challenging. Yet more and more, faculty, staff, and students seek meaningful relationships on college campuses and effective communication can lay the foundation for those relationships. The better we communicate, invite each other to discussions, and sustain positive and invitational messaging about learning and academic success, the more likely all members of the campus community are to feel welcomed on campus and to build affinity for the institution and each other.