Communication and Context

Learning Objectives

  • Describe strategies for effective and appropriate communication in college

In college, you will find yourself writing for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts. You may write a lab report for a chemistry class with a very different structure than a literary analysis for a literature class, for example. You will also be writing to peers to organize group work, to faculty to ask questions, to administrative staff about advisement, and even to deans to ask for waivers and raise serious concerns. Each writing situation is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your professionalism and communicate effectively.

Writing Emails

  1. Introduce yourself and identify yourself (including the meeting time and section number of your class for a professor; a student in a particular major to the department chair, etc.)
  2. Explain the purpose of the email (I am writing to request an extension; I am writing to request an appointment)
  3. Thank the person for considering your request
  4. Proofread!

In a college setting, whether you’re in an online class or a face-to-face classroom, email is one of the most common ways you’ll interact with your professors and other staff on campus.

Many students make the mistake of thinking emails are very informal, but when you communicate by email, you should use a professional tone, one that you would in a professional setting. In both academic and professional settings, emails are one of the most common forms of communication. With that in mind, it’s important to develop some good strategies for writing emails.

Emails are as important to making a good impression as a face-to-face conversation. It is critical to be concise and clear. It is important to try to avoid making careless mistakes or using a tone that is too informal. Use the proper subject line, attachment, respectful title, greeting, tone, grammar, and punctuation. A poorly written email may look like this:

A picture of a poorly written email with informal abbreviations.

Figure 1. This email has several typos and is not written in the appropriate formal tone for an instructor.

There are several errors in the above example. The subject line does not appropriately describe what the message will contain nor is it capitalized. The student forgot to attach the homework. The message is also missing a greeting, and there is poor grammar and spelling. The smile at the end is unnecessary as well. The author has not reflected on who would be reading the document, that person’s position, or in what context he or she would be reading the message.

Let’s consider instead an email written to a professor. Remember, your professor teaches many students and will not necessarily remember which class you are in. Professors are also busy, so writing a clear, informative email is likely to receive the quick response that you want. Remember the following:

  1. Introduce yourself and identify the class you are in (including the time and section number)
  2. Explain the purpose of the email
  3. Thank the professor for considering your request
  4. It’s also helpful to include your student ID along with your full name in the signature of your email
  5. Don’t forget to be specific and informative in the subject line of your message
Student letter to professor with subject line "homework and missed class." The letter starts by explaining who he is and which class he's in, and that he had to miss class due to a family emergency. He attaches his homework, explains he will get notes from a classmate, and is planning to come to office hours. He closes with his name, ID, and email address.

Figure 2. This is a much better email, as it is written professionally and politely, uses proper grammar, and shows an effort to take responsibility.

Notice that this email reflects the audience and tone of the message. The above message is directed toward an academic professional; therefore, the author uses the correct title, greeting, and salutation. The author also writes in full sentences, is respectful, correctly attaches the document, and has a specific subject line.

Try It

The Importance of attendance

A note on attendance: some college classes require attendance and even count participation towards your final grade. Others don’t. Research indicates that students who miss class are often over-confident and don’t realize what they may have missed or how their absence may impact their mastery of the material. In college, when you need to miss class, it’s up to you to make up for what you missed. That’s the case, regardless of why you missed class.

It is not effective to write to a professor to ask if you missed anything important. Instead, check first with a peer and ask for notes or a recap of class. You can also check the syllabus and ask the professor about any changes to the course schedule for the day. Finally, go see the professor during office hours to discuss the material further.

All messages need not be uniform. Some stylistic freedom is allowed in the greeting, body, and salutation of the email. For example, it’s acceptable to write good morning or good afternoon, instead of dear. It is also acceptable to write sincerely instead of thank you. However, it’s inappropriate to add emoticons, incorrect abbreviations, or faces made with punctuation marks in professional emails, especially to people you don’t know well.

REMEMBER: You should take email correspondence seriously. Take the time to reread your emails, and reflect on the effectiveness of the words and style in which you choose to write. Programs like Grammarly are helpful

Extension Template

If you ever find yourself needing to ask for an extension from an instructor, consider using this extension request template and make the necessary adjustments so that it fits your situation. Remember to be professional in the request, but understand that your request may not be granted. The earlier you can communicate the need for an adjustment with your instructor, the better.