How to Communicate Effectively With Your Instructor

Three figures with a lightbulb over their heads to depict effective online communicationOnline communication can be complicated. In order to help students and instructors, here are a few tried-and-true tactics and tips for communicating efficiently and successfully via technology.

Each instructor has their own individual preferences about the following guidelines, so when in doubt, ask your instructor about their online communication preferences.

We’re all on the same team

Instructors want their students to succeed and learn course material, while students want to do well and get on to their post-graduate lives in their field.

There are no perfect instructors or students here, but our goals are complementary. How can we accomplish these goals better together?

In the online communication age, it’s best to avoid some things:

Don’t email your instructor for information already included in your syllabus.

  • A partial list of items that can be found in your syllabus includes course title and number, the instructor’s name, contact information, office hours, grading criteria, assignment descriptions, due dates, testing/exam dates, attendance policy, and late work policy.

Don’t email when angry.

  • If you feel angry or frustrated, give yourself time before reaching out to your instructor. If you can, sleep on it overnight. It’s best to calm down, possibly reevaluate the situation (i.e., an unexpected bad grade, a confusing assignment you are concerned about, poor communication from your instructor), take a deep breath, and then start writing. If you aren’t sure how what you have written will come across, ask someone else to read it over and give you feedback.

Don’t write a five-page email.

  • If there is a complex situation you need to convey to your instructor that takes more than a couple of paragraphs to explain, it may be more effective to have a conversation over the phone, Skype, or in person. Even if your busy schedule makes it difficult for you to schedule an appointment during your instructor’s office hours, you can always schedule a phone or video call with him or her.

Don’t expect an email response from your instructor in fewer than 24 hours. Or on the weekend. Or at 3 a.m.

  • This rule also includes emailing less than 24 hours before your assignment is due to get feedback on an assignment or to get a list of items that will/will not be on a quiz. Not that any student would do that, of course.

Don’t friend your instructor on social networking sites, especially while taking a class with that instructor.

  • Students and instructors are discouraged from “friending” or “following” each other on social media because it can raise a host of boundary, privacy, and dual relationship issues. Privacy settings on social sites are becoming increasingly complex and correspondingly difficult to navigate. Even if you think you have your profile locked down, there is no guarantee that items posted to social media sites will stay there. As a student, it is important to give thought to your professional reputation and how much you want your personal life to intermingle with your professional life.

Now for the positive online communication best practices!

Be nice and be polite.

  • The golden rule of online education is the same as in life. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Be professional in what you say and remember there is a human on the other end of your message. Imagine how you’d feel if you were in the other person’s shoes, and respect one another above all.

Address your instructor correctly.

  • Your instructor should note how they would like to be addressed in their introductory message. If they don’t mention it, as a sign of respect, instructors should be addressed as Dr. if they have a terminal degree, and if not, Mr. or Ms. is the accepted norm. First names are only used if the instructor expressly wishes to be addressed this way.

Use proper email and voicemail etiquette.

  • Begin an email or voicemail with a salutation, address your instructor by his/her preferred name or title, identify yourself, and identify the course and/or assignment you are concerned about, and end your emails by saying “thank you” and including your name.

Be direct about what you need.

Communicate if you are going to miss an assignment, or need to submit one early.

  • You have a life outside the classroom that will sometimes conflict with your assignments. What if you get seriously ill, or you’ve planned a trip to the south of France for two weeks with limited internet access? Different instructors have different policies, but most instructors are more than willing to accommodate a temporary schedule alteration, especially if it is a planned event.

Provide options when scheduling meetings or appointments via email or voicemail.

  • If you cannot make your instructor’s office hours and are trying to schedule a meeting, list at least three days and times that you are available to meet.

Leave constructive voicemail messages.

  • When leaving a voicemail message for your instructor and you need a call back, leave your name, a number where they can reach you, the best time to reach you, what you are calling about, and how they can best help you.

So whether you prefer to get in touch via phone, email, or virtual office hours, be sure to consider the communication method your instructor prefers. But don’t ever hesitate to reach out. Your instructor is there to help you succeed.

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*This blog post was originally published on October 9, 2018, and was updated and reposted on October 26, 2021.

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