Whether you’re a current graduate student or considering pursuing a master’s, chances are some of your classes and even your entire program will be online. According to the National Centers for Education Statistics, 51.8% of master’s students earn their degrees online, a trend that’s increasing due to the shift to distance learning during the 2020 pandemic.
Many perks come with online learning, such as taking classes from virtually anywhere, but there is a learning curve when it comes to effective communication in a virtual setting. This guide is packed with tips and resources you can use to navigate communication in your online learning experience with ease. Learn how to write a proper email, the best practices for communicating in class, and common errors to avoid when speaking with your classmates and professors.
10 Best Practices for Successful Student-Professor Communication
How you communicate with other students and professors can impact your learning experience. Effective communication in fosters a sense of community and makes it easier for students to stay engaged in class.
Communication online involves a different approach than a face-to-face-environment, primarily because of the lack of nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. Implementing these communication best practices today can improve your communication for grad school and beyond.
Use Preferred Names and Spell Them Correctly
Whatever your instructor asks you to call them on the first day of class is how you should address them at the start of an email. Using preferred names is a sign of respect. You can usually find an instructor’s preferred name in the syllabus or on your school’s website. If you’re unsure what to call them, it’s typically appropriate to use their last name and ensure you’re using the proper prefix. Many graduate professors earned their doctorate and use Dr. instead of Mr. or Ms.
Be Conscious of Tone
When we interact with people in person, we rely on non-verbal cues, such as body language and voice inflection, to help communicate our emotions. We’re missing that communication layer online, and a reader may misinterpret our message. Be conscious of how your word choice, sentence length, and punctuation may affect the overall tone of your email or message.
Use Easy-to-Read Fonts
The font you choose can impact the legibility of your email. According to a 2020 study from Statista, 74% of smartphone users read and send emails on their mobile devices. That means your instructor will likely read your email from the small screen on their phone, so the font should be crisp, clean, and easy to read. Even if they view your email from a computer, simplistic fonts will be easier to read. A few go-to font options are Arial, Courier New, and Georgia. Try not to use fonts like Comic Sans or Papyrus.
Proofread Your Messages
Always proofread your email before sending it. Proofreading is more than fixing grammatical errors. Consider how your professor may interpret your tone and if your overall message makes sense. Will your professor have questions or need additional information after reading your email? If proofreading is not your strong suit, you can always ask a friend to read it. Having a different set of eyes may work to your advantage to help identify potential weak spots in your email that you may have missed.
Keep it Positive
Even if you’re frustrated with a classmate or stressed about your coursework, you want to keep your email positive. Avoid using too many short sentences, sentence fragments, or accusatory language. Instead, detail your situation and use positive words like “do” and “can.”. Write your emails with the same respect and politeness that you’d talk to your professor with in person.
Be Clear and Specific in Your Needs or Concerns
Keep your email clear and concise by addressing your reason for the email in the first few sentences. Be specific about what you need help with or the next steps you want your professor to take. When you proof your email, ensure everything you’ve written is necessary to the message you want to convey. A clearly written email makes it easier for your professor to know what you need, and it cuts back on back-and-forth emails between the two of you.
Offer Constructive Feedback That is Specific
If you notice a professor made a mistake, or you have an idea for a better way to do something, provide your professor with constructive feedback. The key to feedback is to be specific. Use positive language to explain the mistake or confusion and provide one solution. If you have multiple areas of feedback you want to address, save those for a different message. Offering too much constructive feedback can quickly feel overwhelming and will lessen the chance of your professor implementing changes.
Offer Positive Feedback That is Specific and Relevant
If you’re enjoying an aspect of your online class, let your instructor know by providing positive feedback. As you would with constructive feedback, keep your positive remarks specific and relevant to the course. If there was a resource that your professor provided that was helpful, or you found an activity stimulating, send them a short message or email explaining what your enjoyed and why. If you have multiple feedback points, keep them in separate messages to send at another time. Too much positive feedback at once can feel disingenuous.
Avoid Negative Language
Negative language is using words with negative connotations like “never,” “can’t,” and “don’t.” Using negative language can create tension and make a professor reluctant to help you. Avoid negative language by banning negative words and phrases, keeping your messages concise, and writing with empathy.
Show That you are Growth Minded and Open to Feedback
Having a growth mindset means you’re open to learning. When a professor sees you are open to learning, they’re more likely to provide feedback and guidance to help you achieve your academic goals. You can showcase a growth mindset by asking questions, engaging in class discussions, trying something more than once if you don’t get it right the first time, listening to and applying feedback, and putting noticeable effort into challenging projects.
Netiquette 101: How to Communicate in Online Classes
Many online classes use discussion boards to encourage students to think critically about course topics, so it’s vital to know and use proper netiquette when interacting with peers and professors in these interactive environments.
Proper netiquette refers to norms for interacting with people online. Online communication, whether through social media or texting, is one of the most common forms of interaction. However, the netiquette you use with your friends and family differs from how you should interact with peers and professors in an online class.
Keep your interactions with classmates and instructors respectful and effective with these netiquette tips.
Present Your Best Side Online
Our physical presence plays a significant role in how others perceive us, but because people can’t see you online, you must consciously put your best foot forward by humanizing yourself. Add an appropriate photo to your email or discussion forum profile so people can put a face to your name. Share personal information when appropriate to help people to get to know you. Also, don’t be afraid to show your personality in your writing by structuring phrases and sentences similar to how you might say them out loud.
Remember There is a Person on the Other Side of the Discussion
When we’re behind a screen, it’s easy to forget that our peers are real people, especially in a debate when you do not agree with someone. Always take the time to think before you write and ask yourself how someone on the receiving end may interpret your message. Avoid using sarcasm or snarky comments, ensure everything you type adds value to the conversation, and be sure that your message does not have a bullying or attacking tone.
Respect of Other People’s Contributions and Only Add to the Discussion in a Constructive Way
It’s okay to disagree with people in your class. Many professors encourage debate because it gets students critically thinking about course topics. However, even in a discussion, respecting your peers’ opinions is essential. If you want to provide a counterpoint to someone’s response, do so in a way that constructively adds value to the discussion. Explain why you disagree and use sources to back up your claims. Even if things get heated, keep the conversation focused on the class topic and don’t bring personal situations into the discussion.
Read First, Then Ask
Before posting a question or responding to a post, take the time to read what the other students wrote. Reading carefully before posting ensures your comments or questions add value to the discussion. Repeating questions and information shows your professor and your peers that you haven’t taken the time to read other students’ responses and can come across as not caring what your classmates have to say.
Use Proper Grammar and Punctuation
When you’re chatting online, it’s easy to fall into poor grammatical habits or use the shorthand that you use with friends. However, even if your course has a casual vibe, it’s still a professional environment, and you want to ensure you’re using proper grammar and punctuation. Always proofread your messages and emails before sending them, or use an online grammar tool to ensure your writing is flawless. Having written work riddled with mistakes removes the overall message and can make it difficult for others to understand.
Respect People's Privacy
Your peers are real people on the other side of the screen. Respect their privacy in the same way you would in a face-to-face classroom. Avoid asking intruding questions or badgering them to share personal information if they don’t feel comfortable. Remember that just because you’re open to sharing something about yourself doesn’t mean everyone else is. Privacy is critical if you know the individual outside of class. Don’t share information about a classmate or professor regarding their personal life.
Respect People's Time
All grad students are busy. Be kind to your peers and your instructors by respecting their time. If your class has virtual learning sessions, show up on time and keep comments and questions related to the course topics. If you’re on a discussion forum, ensure you add new and valuable information. Be mindful of your email communication outside class, and keep messages concise and positive.
Quick Guide to Professional Email Writing
Most communication among peers and professors in an online grad course is through emails. You’ve probably written many emails, but unlike emails from friends or undergraduate classmates, emails in grad school should be professional. A professionally written email builds a positive reputation and trust, effectively communicates your thoughts, and shows respect for your reader.
It may feel tedious initially, but you’ll continue to use professional email writing after grad school. Use the guidelines below, as shared by Purdue University, as a resource to improve your professional writing game.
- Have an informative subject line: Your subject line should let the reader know what they can expect in the email. Keep the subject line short and informative. If you need clarification from a professor, you can try something like “Question about Advanced Physics assignment.” If you’re trying to meet with a peer for group work, try “Upcoming availability for a group meet-up.”
- Use a proper salutation. Start your email by properly addressing your instructor or peer politely. Use greetings like “Dear” or “Hello” followed by the person’s name. If you’re addressing your professor, use their last with “Professor” or “Dr.” in front.
- Introduce yourself: Graduate professors may have hundreds of students at one time, depending on the school size. When introducing yourself in your email, make sure to include your first and last name, your major, your year, the name of your class, and the days your class meets if there are live virtual sessions.
- Have a clear and concise email body. State your reason for emailing right away using positive language and concise sentences. Also, make sure to proofread your email before sending it, ensuring there are no spelling or grammatical errors.
- Thank the reader for their time. After you’ve shared your comment or asked your question, write a sentence thanking your professor or peer for taking the time to read and respond to your email.
- Use a formal closing. Cheeky email closings are all the rage, but use a traditional closing in grad school such as “Thank you” or “Sincerely,” followed by your full name. Depending on the settings available for your school email, you can add a professional email signature that includes your name, year, and major to provide more context about who you are.
Below is an example of what a professional email to your professor may look like:
Hello Dr. Jones,
My name is Jessica Smith. I’m a first-year grad student in your Thursday Journalism course.
I had a question about one of the slides you presented in our virtual session today about when it’s appropriate to use anonymous sources. You provide many examples of when to keep a source anonymous (like dealing with a sensitive subject), but could you give a few examples of when it is not okay?
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response.
What Not to Do: Online Communication Errors Avoid
Part of communication in an online graduate course is understanding how to write professionally. The other vital aspect of grad school communication is knowing what errors to avoid.
Keep these errors at the forefront as you write your emails, discussion form posts, or peer messages. As you proofread your content, ask yourself if you sound too casual or use all caps, abbreviations, inflammatory language, or sarcasm.
Error #1: Don't be too casual in your language
Grad school is a professional environment, and it’s essential to conduct yourself professionally. Even if you have a small cohort and feel comfortable with your peers and professors, you want to avoid being too casual with your language.
Informal language is not just about your words but the intention behind what you say. It’s not okay to detour from a class discussion with gossip or unrelated topics, use inappropriate nicknames, or divulge personal information that isn’t relevant to the conversation.
Error #2: Don't use abbreviations or assume that everyone knows what something means
Save the “lol” and “brb” for your text group with friends. You can still point out if something is funny or if you’re frustrated, but do so using complete sentences and positive language.
Graduate classes have students from all over the world, especially in online courses. It’s vital to remember that not everyone knows what certain abbreviations or slang terms mean, and some harmless phrases in American English may mean something negative in a different language.
Error #3: Avoid polarizing or inflammatory language
Polarizing language happens when a person uses words that create an us vs. them dynamic. You’ll see a lot of polarizing language in political campaigns, where one party is right or good, and all other parties are wrong or bad. Polarizing and inflammatory language create a divide between you and your peers. It can also create an uncomfortable environment and disengage people from the course.
When writing, avoid generalizing or stereotyping. Instead, try using “I” statements and drawing from your experiences instead of generalizing an entire population.
Error #4: Avoid using ALL CAPS, it appears like you are yelling.
Writing words in all caps is a common tactic people use to show that they’re yelling. Even if your intention is to show excitement (TODAYS CLASS WAS AMAZING!), using all caps can feel unprofessional and visually unappealing. The only time it’s appropriate to use all caps is if you’re using an official appreciation for something, like the FDA or CDC.
Error #5: Avoid sarcasm, it rarely translates and will not come off as funny as you intend.
Sarcasm only works when you interact with someone who understands your communication style. Sarcasm does not translate well in writing and can be rude, abrasive, and unprofessional.
Even if you have friends in your class and think some people might find it funny, remember that not everyone knows your intentions. It’s not worth offending a peer or professor for a joke.
Communication Resources for Online Master’s Students
Learning to communicate effectively in an online master’s program will not happen overnight. You’ll only improve if you stay open-minded, continue to learn, and practice. Check out these additional resources to help improve your online communication in grad school and beyond.
- Don’t Type at Me Like That! Emails and Emotions: Don’t let the perceived tone of your email create tension between you and your professor. This article in Psychology Today breaks down insights and provides times for keeping your email tone positive and respectful.
- Plain Language Guidelines: This set of guidelines created by The Plain Language Action and Information Network gives actionable advice for writing clearly and concisely. You’ll learn to choose words, write in a positive tone, and organize information to help your content make sense.
- Escalation-Limiting Language: Learn more about the effects of polarizing and inflammatory language and explore general principles for effectively and respectfully communicating with someone who disagrees with you.
- 11 Tips for Proofreading Emails: Skimming an email before sending it is not the most effective way to proofread it. Use these tips from Constant Contact to ensure your emails are grammatically correct, professional, and precise.
- How to Communicate in Grad School: Good communication goes beyond emails with professors on online discussion boards. This blog post from MIT shares advice for effective communication in all aspects of grad school.
- Leveraging Feedback Experiences in Online Learning: Many grad courses require peer-to-peer and student-to-professor feedback. It can improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and appeal of a class. This Educause article shares the dimensions of feedback and how to apply them online.
- How to Email a Professor Regarding Research: Getting involved with research is often a significant part of grad school. Use these tips and outlines from the University of Santa Cruz to write a compelling email to your professor.
- How Language Can Polarize Us: This article fromPsychology Today shares research on how word choice can polarize individuals, leading to less effective communication.
- Communicating with Professors: When you need help crafting the perfect email to your instructor, use these email templates from the University of Kentucky to prepare your professional email.
- Communication & Engagement in The Online Classroom: Learn more about the variables that can affect online communication. This article from Michigan Virtual breaks down what online communication looks like and gives tips for better communication and engagement.
- FAQ for Online Courses: This guide from The Ohio State University outlines proper communication guidelines for interacting with professors and peers.
- Overcoming Communication Barriers in an Online Class: There are communication barriers in online courses that we don’t experience in the face-to-face setting. This blog post from Villanova University explains common obstacles and how to avoid and fix them.
- Online Communication Etiquette Guide: When communicating with peers on a discussion board, it’s vital to follow proper online etiquette. Learn online discussion dos and don’ts in York College’s guide.
- How to Avoid Miscommunication in Your Online Classes: It’s easy for people to misinterpret you in an online class. Use these tips from American Public University to avoid common miscommunication mistakes with professors and peers.
- Improving Communication with Graduate Students. This post from Illinois University is geared toward professors, but it contains some actionable communication advice you can apply to your graduate-level communication.
Interview with an Online College Professor
We spoke with Dr. Dustin Goltz, PhD (AZ State University) who teaches communications at Vincent de Paul University. He teaches courses in performance studies, intercultural communication, and media representation, with specific focus on gender and sexuality, polarization, whiteness, humor, queer theory, and cultural studies. As an artist and a performer, Goltz produces solo and collaborative multimedia work. His most recent work, Fred Astaire’s Dancing Lessons is a 70 minute, one-person, multimedia, performative examination of shifting perceptions of queer male mentorship across the last 40 years.
As an expert on communication, we asked Dr. Goltz to weigh in on student-professor communications in an online setting.
Q. What are some of the most common mistakes you see from students when communicating with their professors online?
There are two primary mistakes I see students repeating in online courses. The first is engaging with email or discussion posts with an informality similar to texting. I often get emails from students with no greeting, quick fragmented comments, and poor spelling and grammar. These kinds of emails or posts can send all the wrong messages. One, it can be taken as a sign of disrespect. I have tried to model a professional email in return for these quick “text-like” messages. Often students will catch on, and you see a move toward more formality, but sometimes they do not. If it continues, I ask them about their long-term goals (as these are Communication students). When they talk about wanting to be a Communication professional, I use that as a point of entry to explain how their emailing habits (or engagement with discussion threads) may be unintentionally working against their objectives.
A second mistake, related to the first, is not reading an email or prompt and responding to only part of the message (or not reading closely). For example, a student may reply to one part of a question but not the entire question. Or their response only reflects a piece of the larger email. Whether accurate or not, it sends the message that the student skimmed the message and did not take it seriously (requiring the teacher to follow up and request more information, pose the question again, or re-explain what was already put forth). It is not the face students mean to put forward, but it creates a weaker impression.
Q. Why are online communication skills so essential? Beyond school, why should students learn how to communicate online? How is this a skill that will help them in the future?
More and more, this is where a significant amount of professional and personal communication is taking place. That is a reality. Understanding the many limitations and challenges of mediated communication is essential to successfully navigating all areas of life. There is a loss of immediate context, tone, effect, feedback, and a wealth of information that is co-present in face-to-face communication while limited in video communication and absent in email and text-based communication. This is the most significant reason students report communication breakdowns and misunderstandings in school and their personal lives.
Q. It can be easy to miscommunicate online. Any advice to avoid miscommunication via email or on a class discussion forum?
One strategy I use, and I say this on day one of any class and in the syllabus of any online course, is we need to understand the limitations of online communication and work to bypass them when needed. To accomplish this, I have a clear “let’s jump on a call” policy for certain discussions that too easily run into bumps. If a student is confused about an assignment, typing in circles back and forth via email often elevates whatever confusion/frustration is happening. If a student is upset about a grade or having a problem in class, the absence of important feedback and tonal channels will likely elevate tensions (and take far more time) than a short phone discussion. If time zones or other obstacles pose a challenge for jumping on a call, I sometimes will record audio or video comments instead of another email. This allows students to hear my tone, see my expression, and help build connections, even asynchronously.
Also, avoid humor or sarcasm in most cases of online communication unless you have a clear, established pretense with the recipient.
Q. What are some communication barriers in an online setting, and how can students/professors overcome those?
I am a performance scholar, so I study the role of bodies in communication. The significance of removing bodies in online communication cannot be overstated. Meaning-making happens through a series of contemporaneous channels (eye contact, nonverbal body language, tone and paralanguage, affect, proximity, etc.) beyond the decoding of symbols (i.e. words). Online, we often only trade in symbols, leaving the receiver to project onto, assume, and interpret a flood of information. They may assign meaning to the messages, but there can be a large and dangerous cavern between the intended message and whatever meaning the receiver assigns.
This slippage of meaning is especially true in topics that are tense, sensitive, or personal. There is an elevated level of care that needs to go into crafting textualized symbolic messages for clarity of ideas and specification of tone, intention, and relation.
Q. Any tips for professors or students for creating and fostering a more personable online experience?
My number one tip is don’t simply design courses where everyone is typing at one another. I use all forms of audio and video in my interactions with students and when I ask them to interact with one another. I was lucky to have an arts background with a lot of work in video before going into academia, and that skill set has been invaluable in course development. For professors, I would say that interactive online technologies have become very user-friendly and opened a door for meaningful and creative integration into online courses. Let students see and get to know you, even if working asynchronously. Help students see and know one another. The technologies not only help replicate certain parts of the face-to-face experience, but I have found some of the technologies afford forms of interaction and communication skill development that are not possible is a face-to-face course.