Teaching students to send good emails

I know most of my blog is about academic writing for theses, books and journal articles, but there is another form of academic writing that is essential we teach, and practice. And that is writing good emails.

Academics frequently write terrible emails. We are busy people, we have way too many emails to get through, and our academic writing often values transactional, concise and facts-based text. It is not uncommon to receive emails like this:

yes.

best,

K

Dr Katherine Firth
Lecturer
Random University

Students also frequently write terrible emails. They leave out significant information that requires 40 minutes of searching through class lists to work out. They write like they are texting you. They get your name wrong. They write enormous, anxious, sycophantic emails where it’s not quite clear what they are asking you to do.

Students also struggle to work out what is culturally appropriate–you aren’t a school teacher, you aren’t the boss at the cafe where they work, you aren’t their friend. Students from other countries also are unsure about what is culturally appropriate in your country. It’s all just too hard, because we expect them to implicitly understand, instead of giving them explicit advice. [i.e. the whole point of this blog!]

The most common exception, in my classes, have been students who went to very expensive private schools, and mature students. They know, and have been taught, how to write good emails. But it’s not hard and all students should be given the advantage of getting what they want because they followed a few simple rules.

I talk about how to email me in my first lecture, and I typically get the MOST WONDERFUL, polite, respectful, informative and delightful emails from my students.

What’s more, I get thank you emails from them months later, letting me know about successes they have achieved, getting swift and positive responses from busy academics, potential employers and business leads.

Here is a link to the slides I use, feel free to copy them into your own lectures.

***

Of course people are human and so not everyone gets it right straight away. That’s fine too. I also have an email template (one of many for emails I need to send regularly) that I pull out and tweak, to reply to students who have sent me a terrible email.

I am a huge fan of email templates, because I spend the time once getting the wording just right–firm but warm and polite but clear–and then can quickly send it off when I need it. Taking the emotional energy out of writing these emails also means I don’t resent having to send them. I recognise they are a common issue, so I don’t blame the individual student. And I avoid making the issue worse by replying to an unclear, brusque or rude email in the same vein.

Here is my template, again feel free to tweak it to match your context and your preferences!

Dear ,

Thank you for your email. As you know, email is a very important professional communication tool, and unfortunately your current email does not meet the usual standards for applying for jobs, communicating with colleagues or with lecturers at University.

As I explained in class, emails to me should be set out as follows:

Subject line include:

The subject code (SCIE90006)

Address me correctly by my title:

Dear Dr. Firth,

In the body of the email:

State the time of your tutorial, and your tutor’s name
Explain the situation
Describe the task you will (or are trying to) accomplish
Explain the requested action on my part.
Include any relevant information (such as attachments of doctor’s certificates).

Signature includes

Full name
and student number

Setting out an email like this gives me all the information I need to effectively and swiftly answer your question–making it more likely that you will get a favourable answer in a short amount of time. I get over 200 emails a day, so sending emails that don’t conform to this template are likely to get lost, or left for much later until I have time to do the extra work a more informal email requires of me.

Writing good emails is an essential life skill. I look forward to receiving your email again in the correct format and including the information that I need to give your request proper consideration.

With all good wishes,

Katherine

Dr Katherine Firth
Lecturer
Random University

***

I am not sure why lecturers are often reluctant to respond like this to students. I have always had excellent outcomes, and the pleasure of opening my inbox, most days, to students who write confident, informative and clear emails–and also send me thank you notes.

Students are, on the whole, awesome human beings who don’t know everything yet. That’s why they are at university. If you see students struggling to send effective emails, please don’t hesitate to help them out, by giving them guidance and modelling effective practice yourself.

 

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