Communication Currents

How Email Builds Student-Teacher Ties

October 1, 2011
Instructional Communication

Students’ success in college is based, in no small part, on the relationships they are able to develop with their faculty. Having good interpersonal relationships with professors can make students feel comfortable seeking guidance on assignments, build their connections to the school, help them network for potential jobs, and so on. One way students can develop this interpersonal rapport with teachers is via extra class communication (ECC). A common form of ECC nowadays is email correspondence. Our goal was to assess email correspondence as a form of computer-mediated ECC in terms of how it may shape students’ desire to foster student-teacher professional relational development.

Three hundred sixty-six undergraduate students completed an online survey about their experiences and perceptions of email communication with their faculty. Several important findings were revealed. First, frequent teacher outreach via email – both personalized (teacher-to-individual student) and mass (teacher-to-entire class) – was viewed favorably by students. However, we found that students actually may prefer inclusive, all-group/mass email communication to targeted one-on-one emails. One possible explanation for this preference is that when teachers send emails to the class en masse, this strategy may convey an openness and equitability in the treatment of all students. In short, teachers who stay in contact with their students via email demonstrate an ongoing commitment to students outside of class time.

Second, students who believed that email messages from their professors were high in immediacy were more likely to perceive future rewards in developing a student-teacher relationship. Immediacy strategies can range from such actions as using emoticons such as smiley faces, signing off using the professor’s first name, incorporating pronouns like “we” and “our” when referencing the class, and encouraging a response or further interaction with the student.

Third, students’ own reasons for communicating with their teachers via email shaped their views of the value of developing a student-teacher relationship. Not surprisingly, students who emailed professors for procedural/clarification on assignments or the course and for personal/social reasons were more likely to see the value in fostering the student-teacher relationship; whereas students who emailed their instructors primarily for the ease and minimal face-to-face contact provided by email communication were not likely to perceive rewards in nurturing a student-teacher relationship.

However, when we examined the combined effect of students’ perceptions of their instructor’s email communication (perceived frequency of both mass and personalized emails from the teacher, and perceived immediacy of those emails) and their own reasons for emailing their instructors (personal/social, procedural, and efficiency), the influence of students’ personal/social reasons for communicating with their instructor no longer played a significant role. This finding suggests that students’ perceptions of the warmth portrayed in their instructor’s email communication may better predict whether they value developing a student-teacher relationship, beyond their own personal motives for contacting the teacher via email.

Email communication brings with it a unique set of advantages and barriers as a medium for transmitting messages. Unlike the face-to-face context, email allows students and teachers to communicate at any time, without the need to be in each other’s physical presence.  Although there may be some situations (e.g., certain personal exchanges, grades, and test performance) where the subject for discussion necessitates the physical closeness associated with traditional “office hours” ECC, email provides one way for students and teachers to maintain contact.

In short, this study addresses the significance of the student-teacher relationship and offers some insight into how this valuable relationship can be fostered via computer-mediated communication. Email may nurture this important relationship, especially when personal schedules or competing demands on time do not allow teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Beyond the classroom, and even the class, email serves as a link between students and teachers and may promote student success.

Student-teacher interactions, especially outside of the classroom, are constantly evolving. An important discovery in this project is a potential trend in email becoming an “on the go” form of communication. Although personal computers in the home remain the most common tool and place to access email, results show that cellular telephones are the second most popular tool and location of email access. The popularity of email and cellular telephones is increasing, with more people using each as a means of communicating for both social and professional reasons. The combination of cellular phones and emails (e.g., Blackberries and iPhones) allows for mobile access of email wherever the phones can receive Internet access. With such widespread and instant access to emails, students can engage in mediated ECC throughout the day, without having to make changes to routine class or personal schedules in order to meet during office hours.

Of course, the ease of emailing “on the go” presents new challenges. For instance, students and instructors may send emails without proper proof-reading or without sufficient reflection. Likewise, there is an array of other computer-mediated modes of communication that both teachers and students can employ to maintain contact outside of the classroom, including texting and instant messaging, or using Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, or Skype. Nonetheless, the fact that email correspondence can impact the escalation or termination of professional relational development among students and teachers highlights the significance of computer mediated extra-class communication in the university context. 

About the author (s)

Stacy L. Young

California State University, Long Beach


Dawn M. Kelsey

California State University, Long Beach


Alexander L. Lancaster

California State University, Long Beach

Master's Candidate