Tips for Successful Use of Email Discussion Groups in the Classroom

Developed by The Center for Teaching & Professional Development

To make the most effective use of an email discussion group in your class, consider the following tips.

Have clear objectives for using it.
What do you want students to get from it, and how will this particular tool contribute to the success of the class.

Decide if the email list is the best tool for the job.
Consider the advantages and disadvantages of email discussion groups compared to other forms of computer conferencing such as simple email, newsgroups, chat lines, and web conferencing.

Carefully integrate it into the syllabus.
This may require reformulating your learning activities in the course to incorporate the email discussion groups. Strive for active involvement by the students. For example: students could be required to post weekly notes talking about their internships or group projects; or one student each week could be responsible for posting a study question from the reading, with the other students responding; students could post relevant web addresses or other resources to the email discussion group; students could post drafts of papers to the list for discussion.

Consider requiring students to participate in the discussion group.
Without required assignments on the email discussion groups, participation may be sporadic and/or may drop off substantially around midterms. Make participation in the group worth the students' effort, but not overwhelming.

Estimate the number of email messages resulting from each assignment.
Try to avoid assignments that may result in an overwhelming number of email messages. For example, if you have a class of 45 students and require weekly postings to the email discussion group, you and the students will have to deal with 45 messages a week, just for this one class. Decide beforehand if you want to accommodate this workload; otherwise rework the assignment.

Consider campus computing resources and their accessibility for students & faculty.
Be sure you know what hardware & software are available for email in campus labs and via the internet. Make sure it will be adequate to meet the needs of the course. Some email programs work better for certain applications. Use a common program such as Moodle or Mailman so that all students have access.

Know what kind of technical support is available.
Make sure the instructor and students have someone to turn to with technical questions. This is especially important if they will be accessing from off-campus. Many students are often quite proficient and are willing to share their knowledge as peer tutors. Call the IT Help Desk (664-HELP) for assistance.

Instructors and/or TAs must be actively involved.
Don't just hand the email discussion group over to a teaching assistant. If the students see that the instructor is not active or enthusiastic they may be less eager to participate. Instructors need to be patient with students' inevitable frustrations with computer systems and must be easily accessible for students to get help.

Schedule time early in the semester to go over the fundamentals of email and how the discussion group works.
Ideally this should be in a lab so the students get hands-on experience and can get their questions answered about getting email accounts; accessing their accounts from home; printing & downloading messages, etc.

Check with other campus units for any printed handouts or online help screens that may be useful.
Students and instructors can contact the IT Help Desk (664-HELP) for technical questions that come up. Be sure to check out the IT Web site for other useful information on email, connecting from home, SSU email accounts, etc.