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Teaching Council

Teach Well By Communicating Better – Some Considerations

Effective communication is by far one of the most important aspects of teaching. It can improve student involvement, promote positive interactions, and help build a solid academic relationship between the student and the subject (Gavoni, n.d.). Here are some considerations as well as a few best practices to use (and some methods to avoid) that will help students achieve excellence.

Use your tools correctly and timely

“Not only do students expect their instructors to use e-mail and technology, but also they expect their instructors to use these mediated means correctly and properly.” (Goodboy & Myers, 2015 p. 147) If you are using the communication tools inside your LMS, email, social media messaging, or anything that allows you to send a note to your students, write it well. Add respectful greetings. Be sure that you are using proper formatting and by all means use spellcheck. Reply within 24 hours, even if you are only letting them know that you are looking into whatever it is that they messaged you about. If you are going to use a tool to communicate, use it correctly, and if you don’t know how to use the tool, learn. There are scores of tutorials on YouTube, capable instructional technologists, and well-versed colleagues that can help you if you need it.

Don’t over-explain!

No matter your preferred method of communication, be mindful of the number of words you use to communicate important information (Kilgore, 2016). No, you don’t need to count your words. Just say what you need to say and then stop. Being verbose about certain class details can backfire and result in a higher likelihood of students misinterpreting your message. Be as concise as possible. This can save you from lengthy explanations and follow-up emails.

50-cent words can buy a lot of replies

Knowing your audience can help you choose what words to use. Your students may not be native speakers of the language you are using. They may not understand the acronyms or slang terms you may wish to use (Kilgore, 2016). This doesn’t mean you need to dumb-down your communications. It does mean that you need to consider how your students will understand your message based on the language skills they have. Communication is a two-way street. Avoid a message that may inadvertently confuse your students and result in an inbox full of clarification requests. Couple clear language with being concise.

Humor can be appropriate until it isn’t

In the article Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of Humor by Teachers by Bekelja Wanzer et al. (2006) it’s explained that there are two reasons for using humor in the classroom: 1. Building professor-student connections and 2. Engaging students in the learning process. That is, as long as the humor is deemed appropriate by the students. Appropriate forms of instructor humor fall roughly into eight categories: Related humor, unrelated humor, impersonation, nonverbal behaviors, disparaging humor, humorous props, sarcasm, and unintentional humor. Interestingly, some of these forms of humor can also be perceived as being inappropriate.

Bekelja Wanzer et al. reported that negative humor such as sarcasm can be viewed as appropriate when the instructor is trying to get a course-related point across, but when sarcasm is used unrelated to course material, such as about other professors, poking fun at ignorant behaviors, or negative ways of thinking, it can be considered inappropriate. The suggestion here is to minimize the use of sarcasm when communicating with students. Other forms of inappropriate humor are making fun of student(s), humor based on stereotypes, failed humor, sexual humor, irrelevant humor, swearing, joking about serious issues, personal humor, and sick humor. Students also find it distracting when the instructor uses self-disparaging humor, criticizing, poking fun of, or belittling her/himself. The authors found that “…instructors should also avoid using humor targeting a particular student or group of students and joking about a student’s intelligence, personal life/interests, appearance, gender, or religion.” (Bekelja Wanzer et al. p 193)

Another thing to be aware of is that the classroom appropriate verbal joke may not perform as well (or at all) when written. In Norrick’s article Non-verbal humor and joke performance (2004) he found that there are large differences between written and spoken humor. The hysterical verbal joke with all of its potent timing can be completely lost and made offensive when put in writing.

To sum up, humor can be extremely effective in communications with students, but keep it related to the course, without swearing, and if you must use sarcasm, use it sparingly and to make an instructional point. Always be mindful that a well-timed verbal joke may never work out when written. A rule of thumb is, if it feels snarky to say or write, it probably is, and yes, you should leave it out.

Be kind and expect competence

The politeness of your messages may impact the success of your students. Proficient email use by professors can enhance teacher-student relationships and these relationships are essential to having a positive learning environment (Bolkan, 2012). Be polite and when you receive an email from a student that does not reciprocate that kindness, let them know, kindly. Communicating properly is a skill students should learn.

Charles Cooley, an American sociologist once said, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” (Empath, 2018). To put this in the context of education, your expectations of your students can impact their performance in your class. Your students think they achieve in the way that they think that you think they achieve. Perhaps the 2020 study Achievement and beliefs outcomes of students with high and low expectation teachers will help clear up that statement.  Rubie-Davies et al. found that “students of high expectation teachers achieved at higher levels and held more positive beliefs than their underestimated counterparts.” (Rubie-Davies et al. 2020, p 1173). In other words, if you communicate to your students as though you have high expectations of their abilities, they will perform better than if you had low expectations.

Reflect in your communications to your students that you actually believe that they are high achievers. Consider this quote from Renee Kaufmann on negative instructor communication behaviors, “…when students perceive the instructor’s communication as confrontational, biased, unfair and inequitable, they are more likely to report that the learning environment is unhelpful, not conducive to their welfare, unhealthy and not engaging. Creating a learning environment based on incidences of hostile, aggressive and power-laden interactions could produce perceptions of an environment that is not safe for contributing new ideas and sharing one’s voice.” (Kaufmann, 2020, p. 191)  So be kind, thoughtful, and to the point. Your students will rise to the occasion.

In summary, communicating well with your students is part of being a quality instructor. One who is able to use their communication tools well is more effective than one who does not. An instructor who is concise with their words and mindful of their student’s language abilities is more effective than one who is not. An instructor with a good sense of humor that uses it as a way to encourage their student appropriately is vastly superior at their craft than one who does not. Finally, an instructor who is kind, compassionate, and communicates their high expectations to their students is by default one of the best in the business. These are just a few best practices for professors to use when communicating with their students.

by Jared Campbell, 2021

References:

Bekelja Wanzer, M., Bainbridge Frymier, A., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., & Smith, T. (2006). Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of Humor by Teachers. Communication Education, 55(2), 178–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520600566132

Bolkan, S., & Holmgren, J. L. (2012). “You are such a great teacher and I hate to bother you but...”: Instructors’ perceptions of students and their use of email messages with varying politeness strategies. COMMUNICATION EDUCATION, 3, 253. British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings.

Empath, S. (2018, April 28). Charles Cooley: I Am What I Think You Think I Am. SmartCasualSG. https://www.smartcasualsg.com/charles-cooley-sociology-quotes/

Gavoni, P. (n.d.). The Art of Effectively Communicating With Students (and Staff!). Edutopia. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/art-effectively-communicating-students-and-staff

Goodboy, A. K., & Myers, S. A. (2015). Revisiting Instructor Misbehaviors: A Revised Typology and Development of a Measure. Communication Education, 64(2), 133–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2014.978798

Kaufmann, R. (2020). Negative instructor communication behaviours: Exploring associations between instructor misbehaviours and the classroom learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 23(2), 185–193. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10984-019-09297-8

Kilgore, W. (2016). Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Whitney Kilgore. https://humanmooc.pressbooks.com/

Norrick, N. R. (2004). Non-verbal humor and joke performance. Humor - International Journal of Humor Research, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.2004.17.4.401

Rubie-Davies, C., Meissel, K., Alansari, M., Watson, P., Flint, A., & McDonald, L. (2020). Achievement and beliefs outcomes of students with high and low expectation teachers. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 23(5), 1173. Springer Nature Journals. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-020-09574-y