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Helping Engineering Students Write Effective Email

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Liberal Education Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.800.1 - 12.800.10



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Paper Authors


Joanne Lax Purdue University

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Ms. Lax is the communications specialist for the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. She is a graduate of Northwestern University (B.S.J., 1977; M.S.J., 1978) and Purdue University (M.A. 1994). She teaches graduate courses in academic writing and speaking for international engineering students.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Helping Engineering Students Write Effective Email Abstract

With the widespread availability of text messaging, instant messaging, and email, people are communicating with more frequency, speed, and ease than ever before. However, some of the same characteristics that make electronic communication so appealing to so many young people may be leading to some nonstandard writing in educational and professional contexts. Interestingly enough, a review of the literature reveals few educational efforts to systematically teach the correct use of electronic communication. Thus, this paper discusses ways to teach engineering students how to communicate effectively and politely in their email interaction with professors, potential employers, peers, and others. An interactive class session has been developed for the discussion and practice of some of the conventions of email writing. Audience awareness on the part of the email writer is stressed as crucial to the accurate receipt of the writer’s message; therefore, students learn the effect of tone and linguistic choices on different audiences. The use of culturally appropriate salutations and closings also is emphasized.


The use of electronic technology is pervasive on college campuses today. Between classes, students can be seen walking with cell phones pressed to their ears, checking messages they missed during class and making calls. Others are using their phones to text-message. In any university hallway, students are sprawled on the floors accessing the Internet, working on homework, “chatting/instant messaging,” and reading and sending email on their laptops. Clearly, Generation Y is comfortable with communication technology.

The spatial restrictions of text-messaging and instant-messaging have created a new lingo that has found its way into email. Because of this, some email can be nearly undecipherable to people outside this tech-savvy demographic group. The abbreviations, sometimes obscure emoticons, and lack of standard grammar, punctuation, and capitalization which are common in emails among friends have caused some educators to wonder whether students’ writing skills are being affected1-3 and if this generation of students can communicate effectively with recipients outside its peer discourse community. This paper discusses the background of this potential problem and reports on the results of an informal in-class experiment to see whether educators have a valid reason to worry.


ABET 2000’s emphasis on communication skills,4 especially vital in the era of the global economy with burgeoning virtual collaboration among colleagues on distant continents, and the prevalence of email in the engineering workplace, means that engineering graduates have a greater need than ever for effective written communication skills.5 Any email miscommunication can be costly in terms of job advancement, time, productivity, and establishing rapport with unseen recipients.

Lax, J. (2007, June), Helping Engineering Students Write Effective Email Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2896

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