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A Simple Way to Show Your Students You Care

A new study shows how a personal email could make all the difference.

Key points

  • Three personal emails from faculty that included feedback and ways to improve boosted grades, especially for underrepresented students.
  • Underrepresented students who received personal emails from faculty were more likely to persist in college and to graduate.
  • Personal communications can change students' perceptions of how much faculty care about them, leading to improved performance.
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This semester, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a dedicated group of community college faculty to apply growth mindsets, difference education, self-distancing, and other behavioral science strategies to their pedagogy. Together we’ve brainstormed exciting ways to change classroom norms, encourage help seeking, and keep students on track to a degree. This has been some of the most fulfilling work of my career because faculty can have the greatest impact on students’ college experience and success.

Furthering this point, a forthcoming study from UC Davis entitled “My Professor Cares” suggests that the simple gesture of a personal email may be enough to change some students’ academic trajectories. The researchers discovered in focus groups of African American and Latino men—two groups with less than 30 percent graduation rates at Davis—that most students enjoyed a rapport with high-school teachers that they had yet to find with college faculty. Students also felt unsure about how they could be more successful in college. With these concerns as a guide, the researchers tested whether informative feedback provided by faculty via email could address both needs.

Connecting With Students Over Email

Nearly 3,000 students taking 20 different subjects from 22 faculty members were randomly assigned to receive either three personalized emails during the class or business-as-usual support. Emails were sent at different times based on each course’s syllabus, ranging from a welcome email to a prep for finals email. Importantly, all emails were individually written by faculty based on provided templates and had to meet certain criteria:

  1. Personalized to the student
  2. Acknowledges a student’s performance in the course
  3. Provides feedback about what students could do to improve their performance and how to seek additional help

These emails had an impact in both the short and long term, especially among underrepresented students: These students earned a sixth of a letter grade higher than the control group and were more than 8 percent more likely to earn an "A" or "B" in the course. Moreover, evidence suggested that underrepresented students’ grades improved in their other courses, as well. In the long term, underrepresented students who received emails were nearly 8 percent more likely to return next semester—an effect that persisted for more than two years—and were about 10 percent more likely to graduate. Importantly, these effects were consistent regardless of the faculty member’s race or ethnicity.

What changed for students who received emails? The researchers’ pilot study suggested two behavior changes: more hours studying and more office hours visits. The resounding change, however, appeared to be emotional: Students (especially those classified as underrepresented) who received the emails reported in a post-class survey that their professor cared more about them. This theory is supported by compelling qualitative evidence from students’ responses to those emails, such as:

  • "Thank you for your email, I will keep that in mind for the future. I appreciate all the help."
  • "Hello Professor, It means a great deal to receive feedback, and [I] am appreciative of your time and help. I love what [I'm] learning and will reach out if [and] when I need guidance."
  • "Thank you professor, I am trying my best to prepare for this exam, I plan on earning at least a B on this one! Thank you for the encouragement, it helps a lot!"

Demonstrating a Culture of Care

If you’re like many of the faculty I work with, you already have a tinge of skepticism in your mind: “But students don’t read emails!” Frankly, this myth is one reason why colleges partner with companies like mine, Persistence Plus, to support students via text message. But this study and my professional development work with colleges suggest a different truth: that students don’t read impersonal, uncaring, and uninformative emails. Guess what? They don’t read impersonal, uncaring, and uninformative text messages, either!

One thing I preach to faculty and advisors is that no communication with students is simply informational; each one is an opportunity to show you care. When you think deeply about how your message can convey empathy, compassion, and support, students will not only read it but also will really take it to heart. As demonstrated by this study, that sense of caring can drive student engagement, help-seeking, academic performance, and, ultimately, persistence. I see this impact from Persistence Plus nudges every semester:

  • “Thank you so much. I needed to hear that today. Appreciate it.”
  • “It keeps you motivated to move forward. I took a break over the summer because of health and yesterday I enrolled for my classes. That was in part the constant communication and support.”
  • “This is an awesome thing you do and it helps a lot of students. I really appreciate it!!”

As students wrap up the spring and prepare for summer, consider taking an hour or two to connect with them via email, text, social media, learning management system, or whatever medium makes sense for you. Make sure your messages are personalized and caring, and provide both feedback on the student’s performance and advice for how to improve. No matter what you can accomplish with the time available to you, remember that any expression of caring and guidance can really help your students succeed. Then use what you learn from this experience to build more empathetic feedback into your next course from the start.


Carrell, S. E., & Kurlaender, M. (2023). My professor cares: Experimental evidence on the role of faculty engagement. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. Available here.

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