Effective Communication with Students – October 23, 2008

Effective Communication with Students – October 23, 2008

Summary: Kalli Federhofer from Germanic Languages and Literatures presented some of the ways in which his department communicates with students, both prospective and declared majors, as well as just students in German courses.  German maintains two email groups, one for students in Upper-level courses and one for students in Lower-level courses, to which they send regular weekly emails.  (Students are of course given the option of being removed from the group lists.)  They also have a Facebook page to which they post announcements and other information which is then archived on the site and allows students to post comments or questions.  Kalli himself uses Instant Messaging in the evenings from home to offer students greater availability at a time when they are more likely also to be free.

Challenges: The challenges to communicating effectively with students generally fall under the heading of “balance,” namely, striking a balance between

  1. the frequency and amount of information being disseminated vs. the timely delivery of this information (e.g., sending out multiple messages per day because that’s how information comes in and when deadlines come due vs. compiling a daily/weekly/monthly digest or newsletter);
  2. the level of customization (on both the sender and receiver ends) of what kinds of information are sent and to whom vs. the amount of work involved in editing down messages and maintaining group memberships (e.g., organizing a newsletter by category/topic with an index so that students can jump right to the information that most interests them, or even setting up different joinable sub-groups for specific kinds of information such as internship/job opportunities, research, departmental events, etc. without this taking up all your time); and
  3. accessibility vs. appropriateness of the medium with regard to the substance of the information and communication exchange (e.g., being accessible to students via IM but also being explicit about what kinds of conversations are better conducted in person).

Recommendations:  The timing of this Brown Bag serendipitously followed on the heels of a focus group discussion on communication with Student Government representatives that Advising had conducted the week previous.  What was clear from that discussion is that there is no “silver bullet” of communication such that you can be sure that all students are receiving the information that you want them to receive and in the manner most conducive to their taking it in and acting on it.  That being said, there were several consensus recommendations made by the students about the medium, timing, format, and content of communications with students, many of which are common sense but nonetheless take time and effort to put into regular practice:

  • Individualization/Personalization is good, even potentially if the students are “tricked” into thinking an email is being sent just to them as an individual from you as an individual (e.g., via the miracle of mailmerge); emails to groups or from an impersonal email address are more likely to be deleted
  • Regular delivery is good; students should be informed up front so that they know to expect a daily/weekly/bi-weekly/monthly communication (a side note to this recommendation, however, is to vary something, whether form, subject line, etc. so that it remains eye-catching and doesn’t become invisible)
  • Clear and concise content is good; subject line should be as clear, specific, and interesting as possible; students may not read beyond the first couple lines if the relevance to them is not apparent
  • Maximum accessibility is good, as long as students know where to find things later

From the Brown Bag discussion, the general recommendations that emerged were to establish contact as early as possible (in the student’s career, in the semester, etc.) and to establish expectations and educate students about communication resources/media right from the start.  Meet the students where they are at in terms of time and/or (cyber)space, which might mean thinking about which day of the week and time of day you send an email or post an announcement, or experimenting with media like IM, Ctools, and Facebook.  When in doubt, ask your students directly how, when, and what they would like you to communicate with them.

See also LSA Development, Marketing and Communication’s whitepaper on Social Media.

Formats/Media: In the subsequent discussion, a number of different media and formats were cited and are enumerated below.  If someone has volunteered as an expert user to field questions about a particular medium/format, her/his name and uniqname will be listed in parentheses:

  • Email (Jessica Santos, jjsantos@umich.edu, in Organizational Studies has created a newsletter template with MSOffice)
    • Pros: relatively easy to maintain groups and customize groups (e.g., through sub- and umbrella groups), wide distribution
    • Cons: high volume medium, so individual messages may get overlooked or filtered out; transitory
    • Suggestions:  see above; embed links to websites where information is archived
  • Department websites
    • Pros: universally accessible, information is both archived and easily updated
    • Cons: many students may not be aware it exists
    • Suggestions: educate students of its existence and usefulness when they declare (i.e., when they are a captive audience)
  • Ctools (Jennifer Taylor, jliddico@umich.edu, uses Ctools to communicate with Psych majors; Chris Luebbe, auster@umich.edu, uses year-specific Ctools sites to send email and post announcements for his advisees)
    • Pros: frequent student traffic because of course sites; information can be archived; flexible and customizable on both sender and receiver end
    • Cons: may not be seen as most urgent; impersonal
    • Suggestions: make the site email address specific to target group
  • Sitemaker
    • Pros: potentially more versatile than Vignette-administered sites 
    • Cons: still constrained by being basically a CMS
    • Suggestions: take the time to plan out what functionality you want/need before switching platforms
  • Facebook (Kalli Federhofer, kallimz@umich.edu, uses a Facebook site to post announcements)
    • Pros: high student traffic
    • Cons: students may not want to attend to academic business in a social networking venue
    • Suggestions: get student input and suggestions in designing and implementing a site/group
  • Blog (Mblog or other third-party)
    •  Pros:  informal format can draw students in
    • Cons: needs to be updated regularly to continue to attract attention
    • Suggestions: enlist students to write it
  • Listserv (Lyris or other third-party)
    • Pros: highly customizable; available in announcement or discussion formats 
    • Cons:  may be discontinued or replaced
    • Suggestions: ask students how specific/focused they would like the lists
  • IM
    • Pros: you are accessible when students are
    • Cons: you are accessible when students are
    • Suggestions: be clear about what can be discussed via IM and what can’t 
  • RSS
    • Pros: highly customizable
    • Cons: students may not be familiar with this format; requires some technical expertise to set up
    • Suggestions: research technical details and assess student receptiveness before implementing
  • Surveys/Polls (UM.Lessons or third party, e.g., Survey Monkey)
    • Pros:  potentially extremely useful for gathering data; easy to administer
    • Cons:  can be challenging to get high response rate
    • Suggestions: take the time to develop a streamlined survey; offer incentives for responding
  • Print
    • Pros: tangibility can be good
    • Cons: uses limited material resources; more difficult to disseminate
    • Suggestions: assess whether students actually pay attention to information received in this medium before investing in it

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