There is a lay phrase that goes somewhat like this: “it is more important how you say it than what you say”. This phrase relates to the fact that the tone we use to communicate with others matters. Tone might be easier to identify in oral discourse; however, tone might be more nuanced when the communication is in writing. Oral discourse can be characterized by intricate grammar (e.g., long and spread-out clauses), discourse markers (e.g., to indicate pauses or change of ideas), or the use of non-verbal gestures; whereas written discourse has more embedded and complex clauses (e.g., more tightly connected clauses). While there is not an absolute difference between spoken and written discourse (Biber, 1988), communicating in writing might need some more context and clarity. Because the proximity between the writer and the reader is non-immediate, clarifications about meaning do not occur at the moment. Therefore, when communicating in writing, one needs to be more explicit, convey clear information, and choose words that the reader will likely understand within the specific context where the information will be handled. This is even more necessary in asynchronous online teaching and learning environments where most of the content is provided via written text.
While reviewing some of the instructional materials for a few courses in the past year I have come across several pieces of content, including instructions in assignments and lectures, criteria in rubrics, and descriptions in the syllabus that signal an authoritative and punitive approach. The instructor does have authority in the course and can convey this throughout the course and in the communication with students. Why then is the tone and choice of words problematic? The fact that instructors have authority does not preclude them from using tone and words that are welcoming, student-focused, and that signal they care about students. Tone and choice of words are important to create more inclusive learning experiences. As written elsewhere, Oregon State University is committed to fostering a culture of inclusivity through more inclusive and affirmative language to denote respect for others and contribute to developing a sense of belonging.
How do we recognize that the tone and choice of words may not be adequate for students? First of all, we need to become more aware of how the college student population is likely changing and becoming more diverse. For example, undergraduate enrollment in higher education shows an increase between 2000-2016. Hispanic student enrollment increased by 134% from 2000 to 2016 and Black student enrollment increased by 73% from 2000-2010 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). Second, since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated growth in online learning or a combination of in-person and online learning, more students are showing a preference for these modalities (Kelly, 2021). Third, Oregon State University Ecampus offers educational opportunities to veterans and employees, extending access to education to a different group of potential students. With this educational landscape, our online students are likely to come from different backgrounds and it is safe to assume that the written communication sent to these students will be perceived and interpreted differently. Therefore, we should all strive to write learning materials that acknowledge, respect, and value the individual differences of students.
Considering that language can be a powerful tool that can “draw us closer together or drive us further apart” (Akbar, 2021, p. 3), the words we use in written (and oral) communication matter. If we truly want to create welcoming and psychologically safe spaces, we need to stop for a moment and revisit the written messages we craft. Let’s look next at some examples of tone and choice of words that could elicit negative interpretations from students.
Example 1: Instructions on an Assignment
“You have to complete this assignment by Friday at 5:00 pm with no exceptions. If I see an assignment is late, I will dock 10% of your grade. If you don’t complete the assignments on time or it is of poor quality, you will hear from me via email.”
What is the problem in example 1? The tone of the instruction might be perceived as threatening. Students may interpret it as if they will be scolded via email.
In assignment instructions: “Complete this assignment by the due date (Friday 11:59 pm) and read the rubric carefully to see how the assignment will be graded.”
In the syllabus: “All assignments should be submitted on time by the due date indicated in each assignment page in Canvas. If you have a personal experience that prevents you from completing your assignment on time, please email me before the due date or as soon as possible.”
Note that while a “personal experience” could prevent a student from emailing them before the due date, the tone and choice of words indicate respect and empathy for the student.
Example 2: Instructions in Lecture Slides
“In this assignment, you will work in teams. The team leader needs to contact the pack and manage the herd to complete all stages of the project on time.”
What is the problem with example 2? The use of the words “pack” and “herd” might be interpreted as offensive. While it might sound informal or fun, this choice of words could be interpreted in its literal meaning leading students to wonder whether they are compared to a group of cattle or goats.
- “Team assignment:
- A team effort: Each member is responsible for completing the project stages.
- Managed by team leader: The team leader should contact the team members (in the Group discussion board) to discuss the tasks, roles, and deliverables to be submitted.”
Example 3: Instructions in Group Project
“As a team, you are responsible for catching bad errors such as bad spelling, grammar, and content that does not match singular and plural gender-specificity. For non-English students, you are !!!STRONGLY!!! advised to turn in well-written materials. English native speakers are not free from sin; you have not reached a good level of writing yet and need to ensure your materials are proofread and grammatically correct.”
What is the problem with example 3? Many. First of all, the use of capital letters and exclamation marks may be interpreted as if the instructor is shouting at students. Second, singling out students whose first language is not English and calling those students whose first language is English “native” could send a negative message, diminishing the cultural background of these students. Third, equating writing mistakes to an immoral action and transgression that comes from religious perspectives may be considered not only offensive but culturally inappropriate.
“The success of the team is the result of collaboration, individual accountability, and collective responsibility for turning in the project report to meet the assignment expectations. I highly encourage each team to make an appointment in the Writing Center for assistance with the development and structure of ideas (ask for an email confirmation of the consultation and submit it with your report).
Your team should submit a report that has been proofread and revised for grammatical errors (e.g., spelling, subject-verb agreement, conventions of the citation style MLA).”
Taken together, tone and choice of words characterize communication of instructional content in more constructive and respectful ways. Using a friendly and welcoming tone and choice of words in instructional content and materials could be one step towards supporting students in how they see themselves, the value they have, and how they are respected in the class.
I would be interested in learning your comments about instances where tone and choice of words could be misinterpreted.
Note: This blog post was written entirely by me (a human) and peer-reviewed by one of my colleagues (who is also a human).