Communication Currents

Students' Email Missteps

August 1, 2009
Digital Communication & Gaming, Instructional Communication

Countless stories are told around high school and college campuses about the inappropriate email messages that some students send. One of the largest discussion board topics at the Chronicle of Higher Education is a listing of favorite (often highly inappropriate) emails that instructors have seen from students. The New York Times ran an article in 2006 on this topic that is still being shared today because it highlights the inappropriate questions and writing errors found in students' emails.

Students in the millennial generation—those born between 1981 and 1992—use a wide array of communication technologies. Increasingly, they are using email rather than face-to-face meetings to communicate with their college and university instructors. The University of Colorado at Boulder's study on students' use of communication technology is one example that illustrates their reliance on email, especially in the instructor/student relationship. Often these email messages or text messages are filled with abbreviations and overly casual writing. This study, conducted by Keri StephensMarian Houser, and Renee Cowan, examined these email behaviors and focused on the general differences between instructors and students.

The study explored the differences between instructors' and students' perceptions of email messages and why they both thought that students wrote these inappropriate messages. As expected, overly casual email messages bothered instructors more than they did students. Casual messages negatively affected the instructors' perceptions of students' credibility more than a formally written email message. Furthermore, instructors were less willing to meet with a student if the email was written casually as opposed to more formally.

Instructors and students agreed that emails with unclear requests, those that are unorganized, lengthy, those with spelling errors, and those missing subject lines bother them in similar ways. Two email behaviors bothered instructors considerably more than students: the use of shortcuts—like “RU” for “are you,” and the absence of the author's name as a signature to the email message. It appears that instructors don't appreciate wondering who is when the message ends without an identifiable name.

Instructors believed that students wrote overly casual email messages because (a) students are unaware of the negative impression they are sending, (b) casual writing is a habit, (c) students need email training, and (d) the millennial generation believes casual emails are acceptable. Students had a different opinion. They said they send casual email messages because of their frequent use of technology—generally, text messaging and instant messaging.

To begin to explain and understand the perception disparity, we looked at generational differences. The media is constantly telling us that the millennial generation is different and uses technology in novel ways. Perhaps this is a temporary difference of opinion, and as younger instructors replace the baby boomers this difference will level out. Eventually when LOL appears at the end of an email we may all know it can be interpreted multiple ways.

To explore this, we looked at an instructor sample that represented three different generations of instructors, including the millennials. As expected, instructors in the millennial generation use text messaging on their phone considerably more than instructors who are members of generation X—those born 1961-1981—or baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1961. However, there were no generational differences found in how instructors viewed the acceptability of casual email messages received from students. Even younger instructors, members of the millennial generation, agreed with instructors from generation X and the baby boomers, that casual emails were unacceptable. There were virtually no instructor generational differences in the survey data concerning what bothers instructors more, or what might be influencing students' use of casual email messages. Essentially, using a generational explanation for these findings, which appears logical on the surface, does not seem to be accurate.

We speculate there might be a power-differential, job role, or context explanation for these findings, but it will take more research to determine this. The findings however, are worth mentioning to students because they could hold in other settings as well. As college students begin to search for jobs, we certainly hope they won't email a potential employer and say, “Hey dude, can u get me a job????” They might receive the same answer they get when they send their instructor this email: “Hey dude can u change my grade????” “Hmm, I don't think so.”

About the author (s)

Marian L. Houser

Texas State University-San Marcos

Associate Professor

Renee Cowan

Texas A&M University

Doctoral Candidate

Keri K. Stephens

University of Texas at Austin

Associate Professor