Shahid Bux, American University of Sharjah
This article seeks to pick up the theme of a piece written by Sue Ohrablo in 2016: “Advising online students: Replicating best practices of face-to-face advising,” with a specific focus on advising through email and its related etiquette. The unanticipated yet necessary shift to online learning undertaken by many educational institutions worldwide makes Ohrablo’s article perhaps even more relevant today than when it was originally published.
The benefits of a supportive and cordial relationship between advisors and students come into sharper focus when working with distant learners, who may experience more intense feelings of alienation, disorientation, and anxiety than on-campus students (Ohrablo, 2016). Although the temporary and necessary shift to online-learning prompted by a global pandemic for otherwise campus-based students cannot be compared to full-time distant learners, many factors may overlap given that this learning environment may be new to many students. In order to meet the needs of atypical online students, institutions are required to utilize a variety of electronic resources to ensure the continuation of quality on-campus service provision or as close as possible. Email continues to be the most dominant means for communicating with students (Gaines, 2014; Junco et al., 2016) and for advisors is indispensable in not only giving advise but scheduling advising appointments, sending important reminders, and providing information about events and resources to name but a few.
As Ohrabolo (2016) explains, however, this medium is rife with challenges given students “do not have the opportunity to develop the contextual framework associated with buildings, faces, and in-person referrals.” They lack the visual cues available to on-campus students if there is a delay in advisor-response time which may cause frustration and disengagement (Ohrablo, 2016). Students are unable to discern if the advisor is caring, competent, and sincere. It is important in this regard that advisors are able to employ effective written communications to help such students feel connected and engaged which can positively impact their temporary experience in the online environment, while also enhancing their desire to continue after on-campus classes resume.
The importance of advising through email must be realigned to understand its importance—that is to say when a student sends an email asking their advisor a question, this is advising in its purest sense, as students now have a need and seek out the relevant person to respond to this need (Ohrablo, 2016), unlike when students have to attend an advising session to fulfill a hold requirement to be able to register for classes. When we as advisors understand this, we appreciate that responding to a concern or question by email is true advising that must not and cannot be relegated to a mere administrative hindrance, nor should students simply be directed to other resources unless absolutely necessary. As Ohrablo (2016) rightly cautions: “Advisors should take the time to respond to emails in the same thoughtful, comprehensive manner as they would an in-person advisee. . . . In the student’s eyes, the advisor is the resource, while the links and catalogs are the tools.” How an advisor responds to a student email could determine whether the student comes back later for further support and guidance, and subsequently may influence engagement, satisfaction and retention. In short, what may seem an inconvenient digression for advisors, may be a critical concern for students that influences their decision to stay enrolled in the college.
Following Ohrablo’s call to treat email communication (and indeed online advising in general) with the same rigor, care, and attention as a face-to-face advising session, what follows is an attempt to provide some guidelines about advising through email:
Respond in a timely manner. Providing prompt and punctual communication is an important component of student satisfaction with online learning helping avoid student frustration and stress (Cross, 2018; Morris & Miller, 2007; Schroeder & Terras, 2015). It is important that if an advisor senses that the student is in some panic and is seeking a quick response that cannot be provided at that moment due to other commitments, to reply and inform the student that a more detailed response will be forthcoming.
Open the email with a courtesy statement. For example, “nice to hear from you”, “I hope you are well” provides a personal touch that shows care. Advisors can demonstrate to students that they actually remember them by sharing a piece of information previously disclosed or inquiring about a student’s personal interest (e.g. “how is your team getting on now?” or “how is the website coming along?” referring to their favorite football team or a personal project they may have been working on) all of which has the effect of making students feel valued.
Provide context. If the student has a specific question, answer the question in summary in the opening part of the email and then provide details, explanations, and justifications. Not only is this akin to good teaching, but it also helps students stay engaged with the email, find what they are looking for quickly, then understand the logic after.
Provide the student more than they request by anticipating what is behind their question, sharing other relevant and important information, and opening up other lines of inquiry relating to the student’s progress. This again shows students care and commitment to their academic progress. Providing the student with a simple answer or a link is not a replication of in-person advising and does not help the student think deeper about academic planning and progress. As Ohrablo (2016) notes, this may be particularly important with new students who may not anticipate future obstacles such as registration holds, registration dates, class schedule etc. A proactive approach can help avoid future problems and confusion, while quelling any negative repercussions that may result such as drop-out (Morris & Miller, 2007).
Ensure that the information shared is accurate, clear, accessible, and in line with best practices for online students (Cross, 2018; Schroeder & Terras, 2015). At times, this may involve consultation with other staff/faculty, checking the university catalog, and then providing a thorough but informed response to students. As Morris and Miller (2007) highlight: “The essential activity for powerful advising is that the student experiences an environment where there is real care and attention directed toward all students and that there is an effort to communicate important information about the entire program.”
Proofread the response to ensure that the tone is professional and the language appropriate for an advisor/advisee exchange.
Provide students options. For example, if students want course recommendations to offer multiple plans, or if students request advise about dropping a course to provide a thorough explanation of the pros and cons, or if a student is thinking about changing major to open up conversation that invites exploration of student’s strengths and interests.
Offer opportunities for follow-up by closing with: “Please follow-up if you have any further questions,” “Please update me on how your mid-terms went,” or “don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any further assistance.” All show concern and commitment to developing relationships and nurturing students.
Treat each email as a trust. Give each communication the care, attention, and respect it deserves in line with NACADA’s core values.
Look for the teaching moment in an email by demonstrating appropriate etiquette, a professional manner, accurate and clear information, all with the goal of nurturing students not only for academic success but with qualities that will serve them well beyond the university milieu.
Although our conventional idea of advising (on-campus) students involves sitting with them and engaging in conversation relating to their progress, goals, and aspirations, advisors are also encouraged to treat email communication as an advising moment and trust that is held with veneration and given the same care and attention as in-person communication. Doing so is not only good practice and important to student retention, but it speaks to the holistic nature of advising and its role in student development.
Academic Support Center
American University of Sharjah
Cross, L. K. (2018). Graduate student perceptions of online advising. NACADA Journal, 38(2), 72–80. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-17-015
Gaines, T. (2014). Technology and academic advising: Student usage and preferences. NACADA Journal, 34(1), 43–49. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-13-011
Junco, R., Mastrodicasa, J. M., Aguiar, A. V., Longnecker, E. M., & Rokkum, J. (2016). Impact of technology-mediated communication on student evaluations of advising. NACADA Journal, 36(2), 54–66. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-16-014
Morris, A., & Miller, M. (2007, Winter). Advising practices of undergraduate online students in private higher education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, X(IV). https://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter104/morris104.html
Ohrablo, S. (2016). Advising online students: Replicating best practices of face-to-face advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advising-Online-Students-Replicating-Best-Practices-of-Face-to-Face-Advising.aspx
Schroeder, S. M., & Terras, K. L. (2015). Advising experiences and needs of online, cohort, and classroom adult graduate learners. NACADA Journal, 35(1), 42–55. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-13-044
Cite this article using APA style as: Bux, S. (2020, December). Etiquette of advising by e-mail. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]