©Marva A. Barnett

Using E-mail Outside of Class to Enhance Discussions
Marva A. Barnett
University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center


  • To participate, students normally need to read and think about the text before coming to class.

  • Students' comments demonstrate some misunderstandings: e.g., in A Simple Heart by Flaubert, when Felicity's parrot dies, she has him stuffed. On her deathbed, she imagines she sees him flying over her head. One group of students wrote, in response to a question about the meaning of the title, that the parrot, implicitly alive, returns to his mistress.

  • You can better see and reward the depth of interpretation of some students who are quiet in class, or whose written language is better than their spoken language.

  • E-mail can be a good way get students to admit comprehension questions and to create analytical questions: e.g., Is there any significance in the fact that Felicity is the one who saves her employer's family from the angry bull? (a key interpretative question)

  • If begun early, e-mail can help students create a rapport among themselves—and with you.

  • A sidelong advantage: with e-mail, students seem to feel more comfortable asking questions about texts or assignments, or making comments about how class is going, or explaining what's going on in their lives that's affecting their work in class.

Realities, sometimes unpleasant

  • At some college and universities, some students have to make an effort to get to a terminal at which they can use e-mail.

  • It takes time for you to read and respond to their e-mail. (I find that engaging individually with my students is one of the most open forms of communication I've seen in more than twenty years of teaching; I know more about what more about my students are thinking than I ever have before, and that helps me teach them better. So, for me, this is an advantage.)

  • Depending on the size of your class and the frequency with which you ask students to write on e-mail, students may find that reading (and responding to) e-mail takes too much time.

  • Many teachers simply add e-mail discussion to their course without otherwise reducing the workload. As more and more teachers do this, some students are overwhelmed.


  • Make sure that your e-mail assignments are not overloading the students.

  • Consider having only some of the students write to the rest of the class for each assignment, just as we sometimes read only some students' journals each week.

  • Timing can be difficult-so far because not all students have modems or access to e-mail where they live. There's not really enough time for many of them between Monday and Wednesday to read the assigned text and send their comment or question via e-mail to the rest of the class. You need to make these assignments early and remind students to work ahead of schedule.

  • If you want discussion to happen on e-mail, you need to grade e-mail participation and make this explicit on your syllabus.