Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

willson

Matthew Wilson, Assistant Professor, Political Science

With virtual instruction becoming the current norm and physical distance separating instructors and students, it is imperative that teachers seek out ways to foster personal connections to students. There are a variety of ways that instructors might do this — including live-streaming classes and engaging with students through discussion forums on Blackboard — but class sizes and obligations can limit the extent to which professors can interact with every student

There are relatively simple ‘hacks’ that can help personalize your communication with students. This blog post outlines, in just a few steps, how to send mass emails that are unique to each student. This enables teachers to write and send only one email but tailors it to every student. Adopting this practice can help to augment students’ learning experience by maintaining personal communication, albeit with the help of Microsoft Office.

As an instructor, I have found that communicating with students in larger classes in this way encourages them to be more engaged. Students often respond to the messages not only to indicate that they have received the information, but sometimes expressing surprise that the professor took the time to send a personal email. Their appreciation for personal attention has also come across in student evaluations of teaching effectiveness.

Beyond helping to cultivate a feeling of personal concern for students, the Mail Merge feature provides a helpful way to distribute links to assignments that may vary by student (such as circulating peer drafts of writing for review). As teachers work to conduct class online in an isolated environment, this simple feature offers one additional way to recognize students individually and to remind them that they matter.


THE NITTY GRITTY NUTS AND BOLTS
(aka How To Do This For The First Time)

Step 1: Prepare the spreadsheet.

The first thing to do is to create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel that contains, at a minimum, the students’ names, emails, and whatever you want to convey. Blackboard enables you to download information from the class gradebook, such as names and student IDs, as a spreadsheet.

Wilson Figure 1

Figure 1. Basic gradebook information provided by Blackboard.

Create new columns to add in personalized comments (as shown in Figure 2)

Wilson Figure 2

Figure 2. Create new columns to add comments for individual assignments.

Use the student IDs to generate their email addresses.This is the same as their ID, plus ‘@email.sc.edu’ (Figure 3).

WIlson Figure 3

Figure 3. To generate emails from student IDs, add ‘@email.sc.edu’.

This gives you all the input fields that you might want to send a personalized message (Figure 4).

Wilson Figure 4

Figure 4.  Input fields necessary to create personalized message.


Step 2: Write the message.

The second thing to do is to open a blank document in Microsoft Word. Selecting the ‘Mail Merge Wizard’ that is available under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’ (Figure 5) will walk you through the process of drafting and sending a message that includes the input fields from the spreadsheet.

Wilson Figure 5

Figure 5. Selecting the ‘Mail Merge Wizard’ that is available under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’

The Mail Merge Wizard first asks you want kind of document you would like to create. For email messages, select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step (Figure 6).

Wilson Figure 6

Figure 6. Select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step.

Then select ‘Use the current document’ and continue (Figure 7).

Wilson Figure 7

Figure 7. Select ‘Use the current document’ and continue,

To connect the spreadsheet to the document, select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the saved spreadsheet on your computer (Figure 8).

Wilson Figure 8

Figure 8. Select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the saved spreadsheet on your computer

Click through to select which students to message (Figure 9).

Wilson Figure 9

Figure 9. You can select all members in a list, or limit your mail merge to specific students.

To personalize the message, draft the email and then select ‘More Items’ to choose input fields that refer to student-specific information, such as their name (Figure 10).

Wilson Figure 10

Figure 10. Draft the email and then select ‘More Items’ to choose input fields that refer to student-specific information.

I like to further ‘personalize’ the message by adding a scanned image of my signature (Figure 11).

Wilson Figure 11

Figure 11. It’s optional, but you can further personalize the emails by adding an electronic signature.

Clicking through the Mail Merge Wizard allows you to see the individualized messages for each student, as illustrated by Figure 12.

Wilson Figure 12

Figure 12. You’ll have one more change to review each message before it goes out to individual students. 

To send the messages, move to the next step by clicking ‘Complete the merge’ and select ‘Electronic Mail’ on the right-hand side (Figure 13). Make sure that the input field containing students’ email addresses is selected to designate the recipient (‘To’). You can also title the message by adding words to ‘Subject Line’.

Wilson Figure 13

Figure 13. Complete the merge by selecting “Electronic Mail”.

Once you are ready to send the message, open the Microsoft Outlook application on your computer and click ‘OK’ to send individualized messages to each student listed in the spreadsheet. The Microsoft Outlook application must be open on your computer for the messages to be delivered, or it will ‘queue’ them until you open the desktop application.

Wilson Figure 14

Figure 14 shows the type of message that each student will receive.


If you have a teaching moment or tactic to share — or a problem with which you are stumped — please let us know here.

One thought on “Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

  1. Pingback: Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students – MPSA Blog

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