Communicating with students

Student working alone with a view of Sheffield in front of them.With students learning from home, separated from teachers and the rest of the cohort, communication with the University takes on a new significance. As a digital teacher, the way you communicate plays an important role in how connected and motivated students feel.

You can maximise the effectiveness of your communication with students, by planning how, when and why you will communicate.

Page break

How can students contact you?

Make sure your contact information and availability are clear. You might like to add an ‘About me’ page to your Blackboard course which details your e-mail address and/or telephone number. This could be a minute long video, or text.

Let students know your preferred contact method. Set expectations for when you will be available, how quickly you will respond and in what circumstances you can be contacted. It is worth discussing communication etiquette with your students (e.g. suggest they consult the course handbook first, do not send emails to multiple staff) as part of your expectation management/building community.

A FAQ document that you regularly update, or a dedicated discussion board for asking questions allows you to answer the same question from multiple students...Judy Clegg in HCS describes this in her case study.

You could also use a scheduling tool like Google appointment slots so that students can book a time to talk to you. Alternatives are Doodle or Calendly.

Page break

How will you communicate?

Tell students which methods you plan to use to contact them, so that they know where to look for your messages. The type of message you want to send may decide the tool you use.

Email

Email is still the most widely used style of formal written communication and is a great way of providing a record of information. Refer to the module code or title in the email subject header (students can then easily search it later).

But beware email fatigue - if you send too many emails or if students do not find your emails useful - they may start to ignore them.

We take a look at how you can motivate students through email communication below.

How to write emails in a pandemic (BBC article)

Phone

A phone call can be the most direct way to communicate with an individual student. You can minimise misunderstanding and clarify details immediately. Some students may prefer this to a video meeting.

Scheduling the call in advance and agreeing what you will discuss can help both parties get the most out of the conversation.

Blackboard messages

You can send announcements, email and messages through Blackboard. This is a great way to share module specific information such as new content or upcoming deadlines.

Blackboard messages

Google Meets

Video conferencing tools allow for 1-1 or multiple people to communicate at the same time, and can be used in conjunction with Google appointment slots.

Google Meet is great for hosting meetings or small group sessions where you’d like all participants to use their video, however, it is not available in China.

Google Meets

Collaborate

Blackboard Collaborate is a virtual classroom that is built into your Blackboard course.

As a facilitator it offers you more control than Google Meets and has more interactive features, including a whiteboard, polling, breakout rooms and enables sessions to be recorded. The hand raise feature allows you to run more orderly discussions.

Blackboard Collaborate

Digital Chat Tools

Chat-based platforms can be effective for quickly communicating short messages or queries.

Instant messaging can feel more personal and might encourage students to share more of their ideas and feedback.

Page break

When will you communicate?

You should try to build a frequent pattern of communication that creates a sense of structure for students and gets them into the habit of coming online and taking part each week. Build this into your module planning.

Here are some examples of patterns of communication within a module. The balance of communication you choose is likely to vary depending on how much other interaction takes place:

Timing Communication Type
Start of the semester Send an email or short video to all students to explain what is coming up that semester. Check in on how they are doing and set expectations. Include key milestones and deliverables.
Start of each week Send an email at the start of each week to encourage students to log in to their course. Highlight any sessions or activities that are taking place that week.
2 - 3 times a week Check-in and post to discussion forums. Show your presence by interacting with students and sharing your insights.
Once a month Set up opportunities for synchronous interaction.
Ahead of upcoming deadlines Add an announcement to your Blackboard course to remind students of any impending deadlines.
End of week recap

Take a look at what is coming up next week, motivate, reassure and share advice. This could be a short video or podcast or an email, or a short online synchronous session.

Top Tips:

  • BB announcements and emails can be written and scheduled in advance saving some time when the course is live and you are more busy.
  • Put a reminder in your own calendar to visit discussion boards at appropriate times.
  • Exemplar of module design/presentation in Blackboard:
    Example of a Blackboard Blended Course: We have made a snapshot of the course for you to access here. After opening the link, click the Submit button to enrol on the course.

Further information

This blogpost from the online college, the University College of Estate Management, shares a downloadable weekly overview template.

Page break

Why will you communicate?

  • To communicate upcoming deadlines - if you email students about an upcoming deadline, make sure you do this for future deadlines. They may come to expect a reminder.
  • To get attention (use capital letters in bold and include “IMPORTANT” in the subject line or title of the notification). Use sparingly!
  • To build community 

Page break

Providing motivational support through emails

The best predictor of student retention is motivation. Writing friendly and engaging emails to be sent to your cohort at regular intervals is a really effective technique for promoting and sustaining their motivation.

Ormond Simpson, a consultant in distance education, specialises in student support and retention and recommends the use of ‘proactive motivational emails’ based on John Keller’s ARCS theory of motivation.

He sends emails at regular intervals to his students, mixing ‘news emails’ with ‘study tips’ that contain motivational messages.

Here’s how he applies this four stage model:

Attention

A humorous and light-hearted style helps to gain students’ attention and get the messages read, demystifying learning and acts to lower stress levels.

Use short anecdotes – psychologists suggest that stories are a particularly effective way of getting attention, communicating points and getting the messages remembered.

Relevance

However lighthearted, make sure the emails contain serious ideas about learning and overcoming learning problems.

Also keep the emails short so that they do not impinge on students’ study time too much. The length of an average newspaper feature – about 400 words - is about right.

Confidence

Address students individually. There is psychological evidence that personally addressed messages are more likely to be read and inspire more confidence in the content.

Yet Another Mail Merge (YAMM) is a really useful plugin for the G suite that allows you to send personalised mass emails.

Satisfaction

Simpson writes “I can’t guarantee satisfaction, but feedback from students so far suggests that they enjoy the messages and are happy with the frequency. I aim to ensure that students get something each week in a course starting in June and ending in October. I also try to use recent news items each year to provide some freshness.

Other examples:

Writer James Clear sends a 3-2-1 email to his subscribers each Thursday containing 3 ideas, 2 quotes, and 1 question to consider.

On the International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (iPGCE), Dr Sabine Little sends weekly ‘reflective nudges’ - a provocation question relevant to the cohort and the course topic sent as an email to encourage students to share their thoughts on the course discussion board.