Student Guidelines for Communicating in Online, Professional Contexts

This document provides brief guidance on appropriate ways of interacting with your classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors in online, professional contexts. It applies to email, online discussion groups, and online chats.

Treat others with respect

  • Use your instructor’s proper title, such as “Dr.” or “Professor.” Don’t call instructors by their first names unless they have invited you to do so.
  • Use the preferred names of your classmates. If someone signs their name as “Melanie,” don’t address them as “Mel” in your response.
  • For those individuals who have indicated preferred pronouns (such as “he,” “she,” or “they”), use those preferred pronouns when referring to them.
  • Do your part to maintain a professional environment. For example, if your instructor has you use an online tool where you can make up your own username, don’t create a username that is silly or offensive.
  • Be respectful of other’s opinions. Being open to new perspectives is one of the objectives of academic discussions. However, if someone writes something that you think is genuinely offensive or hateful, immediately draw it to your instructor’s attention.
  • Before you write something, ask yourself: “Would I say this out loud in class?” If not, don’t write it.
  • If you’re angry about something, wait a day (to cool off) before you communicate with the person or persons who’ve angered you. This is a good idea in the real world, too!

Observe the conventions of professional writing

  • Write in a clear and concise manner. Write in sentences, not fragments.
  • In professional communications, you should endeavour to use correct spelling and grammar.
  • Avoid using short forms such as “u” instead of “you.” Those abbreviations are fine when texting friends but not in a professional context. Likewise, avoid abbreviations such as “ROFL” and “WTF.”
  • Avoid using all caps because it can be interpreted as YELLING.
  • Be careful about responding with humorous or ironic statements: they might be misinterpreted and cause offence. If you do inadvertently offend someone, apologize immediately.

Discussion Groups

  • In discussion groups (and email), make your subject line specific and descriptive: “Next Wednesday’s midterm” is a better subject line than “Question.”
  • Stay on topic. If the topic of a given thread is “Napoleon’s rise to power,” don’t bring in the movie “The Fast and the Furious” (unless you are making a genuine and thoughtful connection).
  • Don’t reply to someone’s post with just “I agree.” Instead, explain why you agree, or explain why you mostly agree but have a slightly different perspective on certain aspects of the topic.
  • It’s become acceptable to use common emoticons such as a smiley face or sad face. Such emoticons can help convey the tone of your statement. But avoid overusing them, and avoid using outlandish ones (like a winking badger).
  • Don’t share personal information pertaining to others (and be prudent about the personal information you share about yourself).


  • Don’t start an email to an instructor with “Hey” or similar informalities.
  • If you need to email your instructor or teaching assistant, use your university email address (e.g. not a personal email address (e.g.
  • It's often a good idea provide some brief context for what you are emailing about, such as, "I'm in your Tue/Thu Stats course. Last Thursday I asked you after class about bivariate distributions. I have a follow-up question..."
  • Use a standard font such as Ariel, Calibri, or Times New Roman. Avoid “silly” fonts like Comic Sans. As for font size, choose 12 pt. or 14 pt.

Remember: you’re part of a professional, learning community. That community is enhanced or undermined by each person’s behaviour. Help to enhance it!


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

teaching tips

 This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Student Guidelines for Communicating in Online, Professional Contexts. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo