Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4

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Instructor E-mail as Relational Maintenance


Maran Subramain, Western Michigan University

Chad Edwards, Western Michigan University

Autumn Edwards, Western Michigan University


Maran Subramain is a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation program and Chad Edwards, Ph.D. and Autumn Edwards, Ph.D. are Associate Professors of Communication. All are at Western Michigan University.



The purpose of this study was to experimentally test the influence of relational maintenance tools (communication strategies to help foster positive relationships) used in email communication between instructors and college students on student perceptions of instructor credibility. Results indicated that students who received emails that utilized positive relational maintenance tools rated the instructor as more credible than did students who received emails with no relational maintenance tools. Implications are discussed in terms of how instructors can use the findings to enhance the learning environment.



Computer-mediated communication has increased the chances for individuals to create new relationships on-line and to maintain relationships that originally existed in the face-to-face world (Barnes, 2003). E-mail communication is regarded as a major network of the academic and the social routines (Hassini, 2006; Sheer & Fung, 2007). Most of the research regarding e-mail communication between instructors and students has branched into two main bodies. One branch investigates the uses of e-mail communication as a teaching tool in enhancing learning and the other branch examines the uses of e-mail as a communication tool in enhancing instructor/student interactions (Sheer & Fung, 2007). The former has been the focus of much of the literature in both educational studies and instructional communication scholarship. The latter has not received much attention. How instructors and students navigate their relationship through e-mail interactions is an important question because of the prevalence of this mode of communication in higher education. Relational maintenance strategies, such as willingness to engage in conversation or a desire to maintain a relationship, are important areas of research to explore in email interactions between students and instructors because of the potential positive educational outcomes for both students and instructors. The perceived credibility of instructors could be impacted by the presence or type of relational maintenance strategies they use in e-mail communication with students. Much previous research has demonstrated that instructor credibility is an important contributor to the instructor/ student interaction and to the student’s overall educational experience.


The purpose of this article is to highlight the influence of relational maintenance strategies employed in instructor e-mails (independent variable) on students’ perception of instructors’ credibility (dependent variable). Because of the prevalence of email communication between instructors and students, it is important for instructors to consider how various types of email messages might impact perceptions of credibility. We will first cover the relevant research, detail the methods for the experimental design, present the results, and then discuss the findings. Additionally, we will discuss how instructors can use these results to potentially enhance their own email communication with college students.


Relational Maintenance with Instructors and Students

Relational maintenance refers to a variety of communicative behaviors enacted to produce stable and beneficial relationships (Myers, Brann, & Rittenour, 2008; Stafford & Canary, 2006). Canary and Stafford (1993) found that relational maintenance strategies differed based on the type of relationship (romantic, family, work, friends, etc.) but generally included openness, assurances, sharing, joint activities, positivity, avoidance, sharing tasks, anti-social behaviors, social networks, and humor. Stafford, Dainton and Hass (2000) found that the strategies of conflict management (i.e., addressing and understanding conflict), tasks (i.e., jointly performing tasks), and advice (i.e., giving counsel) were also an important part of relational maintenance. These strategies suggest direct and indirect communication approaches to maintaining relationships. The current study will focus on the relational maintenance strategies most applicable to instructor/student interactions. Relevant strategies include assurance (indicating a desire to maintain the relationship), openness (willingness to engage in conversation), conflict management (resolving conflicts in positive ways), shared tasks (working on the task together cooperatively), positivity (communicating in an uncritical way), advice (providing advice for the situation), and social networks (reflecting on common relationships or associations).


Johnson, Haigh, Becker, Craig, and Wigley (2008) examined how college students use e-mail to enact relational maintenance behaviors with family members. Results demonstrated that self-disclosure (openness), discussing social networks, and positivity were the key strategies used. These findings demonstrate that the utilization of relational maintenance strategies through e-mail is an important tactic used by college students to help maintain relationships. Yet, there are no investigations of the use of e-mail to enact relational maintenance between students and instructors.


The relationship between instructors and students has a significant effect on the educational environment. Graham and West (1992) argued that teaching is “a process of relational development and requires effective interpersonal skills to achieve satisfying outcomes” (p.11). As such, relational maintenance strategies through the use of e-mail are an important part of the instructor/student dynamic. Email serves as “an important source of contact between students and professors” (Jones, Johnson-Yale, Millermaier, & Pérez, 2008, p. 166). Atamian and DeMoville (1998) maintained that e-mail can increase students’ satisfaction with their instructors and their perceptions of instructor accessibility.  Hannon (2001) and Hassini (2006) reported that instructor/student interactions were improved because of the use of email. Yet, little is known about the specific message features of e-mail communication that may improve the student/instructor relationship. This is an important area of instructional communication that needs further exploration.


Instructors’ Credibility

Instructor credibility has been an important construct in instructional communication research (Johnson, 2011). Instructor credibility is defined as the as the degree to which students perceive their instructors to be competent, have character, and demonstrate caring. Competence refers to an instructor’s perceived expertise about the material or topic area. Character describes the student perception of an instructor’s perceived goodness; while, caring concentrates on the instructors’ expressions of concern for their students (McCroskey & Teven, 1999). Student perceptions of instructor credibility greatly influence overall student perceptions of instructor effectiveness and student satisfaction (Schrodt, et a., 2009; Teven & Herring, 2005). Research demonstrates that perceived instructor credibility benefits instructors, students, and the relationship between the two. Instructors who are perceived as more credible have students who report greater levels of affective learning (Mottet, Parker-Raley, Beebe, & Cunningham, 2007) and satisfaction (Teven & Herring, 2005), feel better understood (Schrodt, 2003), are more willing to talk in class (Myers, 2004), and are more likely to recommend the instructor to a friend (Nadler & Nadler, 2001). Previous research has demonstrated that instructor communication behaviors shape student perceptions of instructor credibility (e.g., Edwards & Myers, 2007). Because of the importance of maintaining positive relationships for instructors and students and because of the widespread use of email interaction, the use of different relational maintenance strategies in instructor e-mail communication to students could impact student perceptions of instructor credibility. To investigate this possibility, the following research question was offered:


RQ: Which relational maintenance strategies in instructor e-mail will produce the highest student perceptions of instructors’ credibility?




The convenience sample was composed of 226 undergraduate students enrolled in one of three large lecture introductory communication courses at a large Midwestern university in 2009. Participants included 93 females (41.20%), and 113 males (58.80%). Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 51 years, with a mean of 20.94 (Standard Deviation = 3.17). The majority self-identified as Caucasian/White (80.50%). The largest percentage of participants classified as juniors (38.10%), followed by sophomores (33.20%), seniors (17.30%), first-years (8.40%), and ‘‘others’’ (3.10%).



An experimental design consisting of seven treatment groups (e-mails consisted of one of seven relational maintenance strategies: assurances, openness, conflict management, shared tasks, positivity, advice, and social networks) and a control group (no relational maintenance strategy) was utilized. Participants were randomly assigned to a condition. After reading a consent form, participants in all eight conditions received a three-page survey questionnaire comprised of a copy of an instructor email to a student and McCroskey and Teven’s (1999) Measure of Source Credibility.


Independent Variable

To create the seven treatments and one control condition, the authors created eight instructor e-mail replies to a student request for a meeting to discuss an exam score. A manipulation check was performed with 16 students enrolled in an advanced communication course. These students were given conceptual definitions of the seven relational maintenance strategies and instructed to match each relational maintenance strategy to the simulated email that enacted it.  Overall, 82% of matches were correct in assessing the email’s relational maintenance strategy. Based on the students’ feedback, simulated emails were slightly modified. For actual study, participants received the following prompt: Imagine that you just received your final exam grade for a required course. You did not expect to receive such a low grade. You e-mail your instructor to request a meeting to discuss your grade. Your instructor replies with the following message. Each participant received one of the eight simulated instructor email responses. The control message was included as a kernel in the other seven responses to hold the instructor’s task-relevant reply to the student request constant and isolate effects on perceived credibility to the manipulation of the presence and type of relational maintenance strategy. The stimulus materials were as follows:



            I can meet with you tomorrow at noon or next Monday at noon.


            Good to hear from you. I’ve enjoyed having you in class. I can meet with you       tomorrow at noon or next Monday at noon.


            I am definitely open to discuss your grade. I can meet with you tomorrow at         noon or next Monday at noon. 

Conflict Management

            I understand your concerns and I am sure we can resolve any conflict. I can meet          with you tomorrow at noon or next Monday at noon. 


Shared Task

            Let’s go through your test together so we can both double-check the answers. I   can meet with you tomorrow at noon or next Monday at noon. 



            No problem…it would be my pleasure to meet with you. I can meet with you tomorrow at noon or next Monday at noon. 



            My advice is for you to look over your exam and see if you lost points for             questions that you believe were correct. I can meet with you tomorrow at noon or   next Monday at noon.

Social Networks

            Actually, several of your friends from the class are coming by to talk about the     grade…let’s talk about it as a group. I can meet with you tomorrow at noon or   next Monday at noon. 


Dependent Variables

The Measure of Source Credibility (McCroskey & Teven, 1999) is an 18-item instrument designed to assess perceptions of an individual’s credibility across the dimensions of competence (6 items; e.g., ‘‘intelligent/unintelligent’’), character (6 items; e.g., ‘‘trustworthy/untrustworthy’’), and caring (6 items; e.g., ‘‘cares about me/doesn’t care about me’’). Participants were asked to rate the instructor who wrote the e-mail along a series of 7-point semantic differential scales. Past research has reported reliability coefficients ranging from .86 to .95 for the measure of credibility (Brann, Edwards, & Myers, 2005). In this study, a reliability coefficient of .94 for overall credibility (Mean = 84.63, Standard Deviation = 19.68) was obtained.



An analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to determine the effects of relational maintenance strategies in instructor e-mails to students (assurances, openness, conflict management, shared tasks, positivity, advice, and social networks, or control) on student perceptions of instructor credibility. The ANOVA was significant for credibility. The F value (7, 218) equaled 7.29, therefore the p value was less than .001 and the eta-squared value was .19. Table 1 reports the means and standard deviations for instructors’ credibility for each of the conditions. Post hoc analyses for relational maintenance strategies in instructor e-mails and perceived instructor credibility consisted of pairwise comparisons using Tukey’s Honestly Significant Difference (HSD). Results demonstrated that students receiving e-mails consisting of positivity, openness, and shared task relational maintenance strategies rated the target instructor as significantly higher in credibility than did the control e-mail which lacked a relational maintenance strategy. Highest mean credibility ratings were given in the positivity, openness and shared tasks conditions. For a complete list of pairwise comparisons, please see Table 1.



The current study experimentally demonstrated that relational maintenance strategies utilized in instructor e-mails have an impact on student perceptions of instructor credibility. The results suggested that the positivity, openness, and shared task relational maintenance strategies have the strongest positive impact on the dependent variable of student perceptions of instructor credibility. Johnson et al.’s (2008) study supported the current results in their finding that students use openness and positivity strategies when e-mailing family members. Additionally, Goodboy and Bolkan’s (2011) study showed the main reason students communicate with professors is to develop a relationship. The relational maintenance strategies of positivity, openness and shared task have in a common a special responsiveness to jointly addressing a student concern. It makes sense then that instructor credibility with the internal components of character, caring, and competence would be rated as higher based on an e-mail message that contained some message element to foster or promote a positive relationship. Interestingly, the strategy of social networking (indicating a desire to meet with groups of student together) does not seem to enhance instructor credibility when compared to the control condition. In fact, the mean credibility rating was somewhat lower (though not significantly) for the social networking email than the control email. It appears that student perceptions of instructor credibility were based, in part, on the possibility of one-on-one interaction with the instructor. An offer to include a larger network in an instructor/student issue may even detract from instructor credibility. This finding should be further examined but should cause pause for instructors who desire to address concerns with tests and assignments with small groups of students.


In general, the results demonstrated the importance of relational maintenance strategies in instructor/student e-mail communication. The relatively lower scores of instructor credibility for the control group make a strong case that instructors should try to include some form of relational maintenance strategies in their e-mail communication with students if they desire to enhance perceptions of their credibility and thereby foster positive educational outcomes. The highest credibility ratings were given to the instructor of the email that simply and briefly conveyed positivity ("no would be my pleasure to meet with you") in conjunction with a task response.


In addition to email, future research should explore various types of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) as another way for instructors and students to communicate. Using an experimental design, Johnson (2011) demonstrated that students who viewed their instructor’s “social” Twitter feed perceived their instructor as more credible than students who viewed their instructor’s “scholarly” Twitter feed. While email is still a common means of computer-mediated communication between instructors and students on most college campuses, future research needs to examine the use of relational maintenance strategies on these social networking applications.


The results should be taken in light of two limitations. The first limitation pertains to the contrived nature of the experimental. In reality, students would have a larger communication history and set of observations with the instructor on which to base a fuller evaluation of the instructor’s credibility. This study gives impetus for future researchers to examine relational maintenance strategies in actual email communication between instructors and students. The second limitation is that the study examines the benefits of relational maintenance strategies in terms of perceptions of instructor credibility. Future research should examine how different relational maintenance strategies impact students and their educational experiences (e.g., learning, motivation, task and social attraction). Additionally, future research should investigate how relational maintenance strategies influence student motives to communicate with instructors and overall communication satisfaction in the instructor/student relationship. 



Although there has been much research on the influence of e-mail as a pedagogical tool in enhancing teaching effectiveness and learning, there has been little examination of the uses of e-mail in enhancing instructor/student communication. This study is one step toward examining a common communication tool in the college environment. Based on the results of this study, instructors would be well served to include some form of a relational maintenance strategy in their e-mails with students. Additionally, with the well-established links between perceived instructor credibility and positive classroom and learning outcomes for students, the use relational maintenance strategies could potentially serve to foster a better learning environment.



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