This is a description of some action research
on the use of electronic mail (e-mail) to foster student engagement
in syllabus topics. Two cycles of action and reflection are described.
Both used a semester-long "assignment" of e-mail messages
between student and lecturer regarding the syllabus topics. The
changes introduced between the first and second cycles, and the
reasons for them, are described. The author concludes that the
approach seems useful. Further work on this approach will aim
at giving students more assistance in developing their own learning
approaches, and in reducing the lecturer's time commitment.
1. The problem and its setting
A degree in information technology appeals to certain
types of student, and most would be to some extent technophilic.
As a generalisation one could say of these students that they
like there to be one "right" answer to any question;
given a subject requiring reading and discussion to arrive at
the range of factors which might properly influence a decision
or an outcome, they may be inclined to dismiss the argument in
favour of some superficial answer; and in this author's experience
when under pressure they are more likely to put aside preparatory
reading than they are to do more technical preparatory work.
The subject "Control and Evaluation" in
our Bachelor of Computing and Bachelor of Business(IT) degrees
involves a range of topics, and is supported by a booklet of readings
from the periodical literature, rather than a textbook. Most
students are in their third year, but a few are in their second.
The subject requires mature reflection and deep understanding,
rather than the acquisition of technical skills. It seemed a
prime candidate for some sort of action to increase the likelihood
that these students would engage in it fully rather than treat
2. Goals of the project
The lecturer was new to this particular subject this
year (the "regular" lecturer was away), but familiar
with the genre.
The e-mail assignment was introduced in an attempt to:
There were also a number of ancillary goals:
All of these could have been achieved by having the
students post messages to a list-server. Our Outdoor Education
course uses this, and we recognised that it would have the advantages
of fostering discussion, and a reduced lecturer workload compared
with e-mail. We rejected it in the expectation that many students
would offer basically the same comment from their reading, and
that a list would leave them wondering what they could contribute
if "their" comment had already been made. It would
also have been difficult to tell if a subsequent message from
someone else was a genuine attempt to phrase the same original
point differently, or simply a paraphrase of the comment.
3. The concept of engagement
Ramsden (1992) says "...the quality of our students'
understanding is intimately related to the quality of their engagement
with learning tasks". His index term is "engagement
with learning", and he seems to equate high engagement to
a deep understanding of meaning, with a holistic approach to the
structure of the material studied (Ramsden, 1992, pp.39, 42-43).
The terms "cognitive engagement" and "student
engagement" are ERIC's descriptors relevant to this study.
We have concentrated on the cognitive aspects, but have simply
used the term "engagement" as all-encompassing. Its
intuitive use seems to imply an element of excitement or charm
missing from the more academic interpretations.
E-mail as a vehicle for promoting engagement seemed
to fill Bixler and Askov's (1994) criteria for effective instructional
technology, even though they were more concerned with the evaluation
of instruction materials per se.
4. The steps in the project to date
4.1 Cycle 1: Semester 1 1996
The e-mail project described here was part of an
assessable component of the subject ("Assignment 1"),
worth 25% of the subject's marks. The objectives were stated
to the students as "To assist you to engage yourself in the
content of this subject. This assignment gives you some incentive
for reading, research and participation". 15 of the marks
were assigned to the e-mail component, and 10 to tutorial participation.
Students were required to communicate with their
lecturer/tutor by e-mail. Five types of message were encouraged:
a) a message at least a week before the scheduled lecture topic, indicating what they hoped would be covered;
b) a message by the day before the tutorial, with a question arising from the reading;
c) notes on some additional source they had found useful on the topic;
d) comparisons (by the day before the tutorial) between opinions stated in the readings, or between them, the lectures, or other sources;
e) a message, by the end of the day after the tutorial,
with follow-up comments on the discussion.
The class of forty-five students was divided into
three tutorial groups, of which the author took one. Students
from other groups sent me mail only in category (a) above.
The recipient of the mail (lecturer or tutor) acknowledged it, sometimes with simply "Thanks, XXX ... Regards, YYY", sometimes with more, and kept a printed copy for later reference.
At the end of semester, each comment was graded out
of ten, and the final mark was divided by ten - this allowed us
to differentiate between the good and the mediocre messages.
In the final tutorial of the semester we went through this printed
record of each person's mail with them. This allowed them to
be sure that all messages had been included, and to discuss the
grade for both the e-mail and the tut.
4.2 Cycle 1 reflection
From the staff point of view, the tutor faced more
problems than the lecturer. With thirty students, the volume of
e-mail was too much to cope with, so that sometimes it was not
read until after the tutorial to which it referred: "I could
not keep up with all the e-mail questions. I asked students to
repeat them in tutes: few ever did". Another problem was
the difficulty for the tutor in detecting whether the students'
ideas were their own or the lecturer's. For the lecturer, with
half the number of students (and of course a knowledge of any
asides in the lecture), neither of these problems existed.
Whether this made any impact on the students we could
not tell: the end-of-semester student evaluations were transcribed
by the Educational Services Unit to maintain anonymity, and in
the process answers to each question were grouped together, so
we could not sort them into tutorial groups. Thus we could not
tell if a student's comments corresponded to their tutor's impression
of the exercise, or vice versa!
The spectrum of student comments, from most positive to most negative, was as follows:
The decision to continue with the approach was made
before these transcribed evaluations had been returned, but would
possibly have been made anyway. The lecturer would be doing her
own tutoring, and the volume of messages was to be set at a maximum
of one per week, even if it contained comments on several topics,
so both of the main problems identified by the separate tutor
New directions for the next semester were sparked
by serendipitous reading during the lecture break of Peter November's
(1996) paper on journal keeping.
4.3 Cycle 2: Semester 2 1996
The assignment was modified. Its loading and stated
objectives remained the same, but all the marks were given for
the e-mail and none for tutorial participation. Students were
asked to head each message or section of message with the date
written and the message type.
The first message (inspired by November (1996) and
Dodd (1995)) was to be a personal description: "who are you?
what is your background, what are your interests, and what are
your ambitions? What is your educational background, and what
course are you doing? What do you hope to get out of this subject?".
Apart from that, message types were as before, but
with the following additions:
f) notes relating content to the student's own experiences;
g) reflections on the personal learning process.
Suggestions here were:
h) The following not-for-marks category was also
added, "Factual/courtesy message, e.g. questions about due
dates, telling me you'll be missing a day because of an interview,
One aspect we reviewed was whether to continue with
e-mail or move to a list server. The e-mail workload had been
recognised, and our fears of plagiarism had been allayed - friends
often sent messages at approximately the same time, but they always
seemed genuinely original. However, e-mail was obviously going
to be more appropriate for a journal. There was another factor
too: one outstanding student in semester 1 would have left any
other student reading her messages feeling inferior!
The previous semester's students had been uncertain
of what was expected. In cycle 2, students were shown two messages
at the outset: an excellent (10/10) one, and a mediocre (4/10)
one (Appendix A), and the differences were discussed.
Another introduction was a tutorial on critical reading,
where a paper each on the same topic (Internet censorship) from
a newspaper, from the Web and from a refereed journal were discussed
. Axelrod and Cooper's (1993) techniques were suggested to aid
the pre-reading - but the students seemed to have some difficulty
with them, and another time we would prefer to use Turabian's
(1969, pp.32-35) evaluation criteria.
This semester saw a somewhat different group of students.
The majority in this case were Business students doing an Information
Technology major, and many more of them than in the previous semester's
group had never used e-mail before, nor the World-Wide Web (specific
tuition on these had to be introduced, although that is outside
the scope of this paper). While most were in their final year,
a higher proportion were in their second year of study.
4.4 Cycle 2 reflection
Asking for a personal description had seemed a risky,
potentially invasive act - but nobody seemed to interpret it that
way. All students sent this message, although two never sent
another, and a few sent very few subsequent messages. It seemed
a useful way to establish personal contact, although it did mean
one had to go back and re-read the introductions a few weeks into
the semester, to make sure one remembered!
The standard of comment received this semester was
far below that of the previous semester. There were no suggestions
on proposed lecture content (except when it came to the final
revision session), and very few notifications of other sources.
Where other sources were suggested, they were almost always from
preceding or concurrent text books, whereas in Semester 1 there
had been many, but mostly Web sites.
On the positive side, there were (obviously, since
the assignment required it) more comments on students' own learning,
and these seemed to indicate a greater general satisfaction with
the assignment than in the previous semester.
The formal evaluations took a different form from
the preceding semester, to be consistent with the School "quality"
guidelines. Only two questions were open - the "best"
and "worst" aspects of the subject - and this assignment
had very few mentions in the "worst" category (whereas
it dominated it in semester 1).
The identifiable comments, i.e. those received by e-mail, were mostly positive:
5. Perceived impact of the approach on:
In semester 1, when more students suggested lecture
topics, the exercise was useful. Messages as shown in Appendix
A were obviously useful in gauging the state of students' knowledge
(the calibre of comment was taken into account!).
The ideal of this approach was the questions should
be raised by the students, and this did not meet with their approval
- to them, it lacked structure. In semester 1 a typical student
evaluation comment was "Even though discussions about
articles were interesting, we needed more of a guide about what
would be discussed in each tute before they occurred".
We would have liked to believe that evaluation comments like the following were deeply perceptive: "Didn't feel like we learnt much in tutorials, although maybe we did without really knowing", and to have continued with the "unstructured" approach in the hope that it would benefit the students, despite being unpopular. However, in semester 2 several factors intervened. One was that pressure of e-mail meant (as the tutor had found in semester 1) that one sometimes faced a tutorial without having read all the relevant e-mail. Another was that the quality of the comments and questions posed by the students this semester was not adequate as a basis for tutorial discussion. Taking these together, it seemed advisable on pedagogical grounds, not just as a bid for popularity, for the lecturer to provide a set of tutorial questions for discussion.
5.3 Staff-student personal relationships
This type of assignment seems to forge a much stronger
bond than the average essay-type assignment. A surprisingly useful
aspect was that it seemed to make it easier for students to explain
absences from class (as well as making it easier to remember who
had said what), so one could follow up on interview successes,
etc.. Students seemed ready to make these positive explanations,
but in the one case where a student had serious personal problems
these were not explained via e-mail - the student visited the
lecturer personally instead.
5.4 Staff workload
The workload in dealing with the mail is heavy.
In Semester 1, with only fifteen students (one tutorial group)
plus some messages on expected lecture content, it was manageable,
but with double that in Semester 2 it was really on the threshold
of unacceptable (as the tutor in Semester 1 had found). The payoff,
of course, comes around week 10 of the semester, when the end
is in sight for the e-mail assignment, but all of one's colleagues
are groaning under piles of assignments to be marked.
The journal style, being more personal than that
required in semester 1, seemed to demand longer replies. A personal
impression was that this "courtesy" aspect was achieved,
but that the content discussion goals were not, and it seems that
if the approach is to be useful its goals should be met.
5.5 "Quiet" students and "outgoing" students
From these experiences, outgoing students seem quite
at ease with any sort of informal communication! The advantages
of the e-mail were with the quiet and mature-age students. Some
people who never volunteered anything in tutorials were quite
articulate and showed considerable understanding in their e-mail
messages. These messages, when in advance of the tutorial, allowed
one to know that a student had a worth-while opinion on a topic
and to ask them to expand on it then. An advantage not anticipated
was that the more sensitive type of mature-age student may feel
hesitant about relating their personal experiences on the topic
at every tutorial, but can write about it regularly with a clear
conscience, and they, too, can then be asked to expand in tutorials.
It must be admitted that this active use of the message
content in tutorials was more thoroughly done in semester 1 than
semester 2, when simply dealing with the e-mail seemed onerous
6. Pointers to successful use of this approach
The following suggestions seem obvious in retrospect, but we had to "discover" them:
7. Some unresolved quandaries
There is an urge to reply to an interesting message
rather than postpone it to a tutorial. Which would be better
for the student, and/or for the rest of the class?
There is the question of whether or not to correct
spelling and grammar in e-mail messages. Nightingale (1996, p.119)
says "I know of no one who thinks corrections of any kind
should be made, including corrections to spelling and grammar
... the last thing I want to do is read stilted English that has
no fluency and flow". This advice was followed, although
it then had to be stressed that for their more formal second assignment
the presentation requirements were strict.
And there is the general question of assessment and
the need for feedback. In both cycles, marks were not given until
the final session, although a student who came and asked would
be given an indication of the degree of satisfaction with their
message type and a count of the messages received. Nightingale
(1996, p.118) counsels against marking journals as they are written
as he finds "students often take between five and seven weeks
to become comfortable with the method and use it for its intended
purpose of promoting reflective thinking rather than merely reporting
events. I call this point in time the 'take-off'" and "Reflections
on how much, how, and why they have changed can only be made late
in a course". One's satisfaction with this approach would
be greater if one were more satisfied that a number of students
really had reached take-off!
In the two cycles described, no ideal combination
of lecturer and student satisfaction with the approach was reached,
but still the exercise has been most rewarding and the approach
seems worth pursuing.
The greatest limitation is seen as the fact that
in its current form it is really only suitable for small classes.
To combat this, the next cycle would be likely to utilise a World
Wide Web-based discussion list rather than e-mail.
That would, of course, have some disadvantages too,
and one of the purposes of the attempt would be to see if these
outweighed the advantages as far as this type of class was concerned.
One disadvantage anticipated might be that students would see
their development of skill in using a Web discussion group as
less relevant than the skill of using e-mail. Another could be
that the loss of personal lecturer-student contact would reduce
the value of the experience.
Further exploration is likely to be in some different
context, as the subject used for this study will be reclaimed
by its regular lecturer next year.
Thanks to John Olle, who tutored in the subject in
Semester 1 and contributed valuable suggestions for Semester 2.
He is not responsible for any errors, omissions or misinterpretations
in this report.
Axelrod, R.B. and Cooper, C.R. (1993) Reading Critically, Writing Well: A Reader and Guide. 3rd ed. New York: St Martin's Press.
Bixler, Brett and Askov, Eunice N. (1994) "Characteristics of effective instructional technology" Mosaic: Research Notes on Literacy, v.4 no.2 (Dec.) pp.1,7.
Dodds, A.W. (1995) "Engaging students: what I learned along the way" Educational Leadership v.53 no.1 (Sept.) pp.65-67.
November, Peter (1996) "Journals for the journey into deep learning: a framework" Higher Education Research and Development v.15 no.1 pp.115-127.
Ramsden, Paul (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Turabian, Kate (1969) Student's Guide for Writing
College Papers. 2nd ed., rev. Chicago: University of Chicago
Appendix A: Sample messages
1. A good message, Semester 1 (10/10)
The following is a list detailing issues that have arisen as a result of reading the articles, that I would like to see be covered in the lecture on Testing:
* A definition of Testing. The article titled "Testing ObjectOriented Programs", states what testing is and isn't. But from further readings, it appears testing is much more than just an 'activity of trying to find bugs'.
* More information on Black Box and White Box testing. Both articles mention these testing techniques, but basically just go as far as defining them. Also do different software packages/programming languages force the tester to use a particular testing method? For example, it appears that in testing objectoriented programs, the tester is pushed toward black box testing techniques.
* Could random testing go hand in hand with coverage testing? The article titled "A Checklist Approach to Writing Test Plans", describes the effectiveness of random testing in detecting defects, not detected by coverage testing. Therefore wouldn't a joint approach result in more comprehensive testing?
* Development of Test plan. The above article includes a checklist for writing test plans. Is using a checklist the best approach to developing a test plan? Is the checklist generic in nature? Along a similar line, which is the best way to approach testing topdown, bottomup, or sandwich? Or does it depend on what is being tested?
* The article mentioned in point one, outlines a small number of commercial tools used to test objectoriented programs. Do such tools exist for testing other languages or software packages?
Thanking you ...
2. A mediocre message, Semester 1 (4/10)
I was reading the article "Internet test for RSA IP security" and it mentioned a single security standard for firewalls. What are firewalls? It assumes the reader should know what a firewall is. I have heard this term before but can't remember what it means.
Yours sincerely ...
Jennifer Goddard ©1996.
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