Nailing Your Netiquette: Key Communication Skills for Online Students

Online etiquette—or netiquette—is the set of standards that ensure appropriate, respectful, and effective communication over the internet. Learn how you can employ proper netiquette as an online student and get expert advice for writing and speaking with clarity in your online course.

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EduMed Staff

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The editorial team at EduMed has more than 30 years of collective experience creating high-quality content in higher education. Our in-depth articles and guidebooks leverage primary source material and more than 120 subject matter experts to help our readers make informed college and career decisions.

Expert Review

JuliaEsteveBoyd

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Julia Esteve Boyd has been an etiquette consultant for more than 15 years. She has taught members of royal families and business people around the world; students at prestigious finishing schools; and young graduates preparing for interviews, internships, and first jobs.

last updated

Last Updated: 11/05/2021
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You learn from a young age that communication is key. Whether it’s with family, friends, or colleagues, speaking and writing clearly makes all the difference. But how can you keep the lines of communication clear when you’re not face-to-face? Students enrolled in online college may find it challenging to navigate their new digital landscape, especially when it comes to effectively and appropriately communicating with their professors and fellow classmates. Between email, message boards, and Zoom meetings, how do you know you’re adhering to the proper etiquette?

Getting familiar with good netiquette can not only make your time in online school go more smoothly, but it can also give you a reputation for being respectful and thoughtful in the eyes of your instructors. By communicating in a mature, polite way and using the appropriate platforms, you can avoid confusing misinterpretations and excel as an online student. Learn how you can get the most out of your online program with internet etiquette tips, examples of suitable communication, and expert advice for conveying yourself with clarity online.

Getting Familiar with Netiquette

Online classes are more popular than ever. So, when you find yourself sitting in front of a screen rather than in a lecture hall, remember that a virtual classroom is still a classroom, with rules and procedures that keep things running smoothly. Make sure you know what the expectations are and why they’re important.

Netiquette sets the stage for an online class. It encourages students to behave respectfully while also creating a safe digital space where they can take full advantage of their academic experience. Plus, using good netiquette promotes a level of academic seriousness that both professors and fellow students notice. Good netiquette can help keep courses focused and it’s ultimately how students can get the most out of their online courses.

By following a set of rules that encourage appropriate behavior, the online classroom can feel as close as possible to the traditional classroom. It also means students can walk away feeling like they got the same level of education and encountered the same level of respect and professionalism.

10 Foundations of Successful Netiquette

For online learners, netiquette sets the boundaries that maintain a safe, constructive, and effective virtual learning experience. From spelling and grammar to respect and positivity, the following foundational elements of successful netiquette will help you thrive in an online environment.

  1. Exercise respect in all forms of communication

Keeping your online communications respectful at all times shapes how others view you. If a writer exudes politeness and professionalism, that increases the odds that the person they’re communicating with will respond in kind.

Keeping communication respectful is especially vital during digital classroom discussions. Academic environments should be safe places for debates, as students explore different points of view and practice how to defend their stances.

  1. Use proper spelling and grammar

While you may have a whole dictionary of shorthand conversational terms that you use in texts and messages to family and friends, proper spelling and grammar are essential in an academic environment. Plus, using correct spelling and grammar help you practice for the professional communications you’ll use in the future.

For many online students, the only way their cohort and instructors know them is through their digital communications. As a result, your reputation in a virtual classroom is linked to your effective and professional emails, posts, and chats.

  1. Practice positivity

Whether it’s in virtual group work, online discussions, or projects, practicing positivity helps set the tone, encourages participation, and fosters a healthy digital atmosphere for online learners.

Remember that sarcasm often doesn’t translate well in written communication. Nuances in tone and inflection are what make sarcasm work, and those are difficult to convey in writing, especially with people you don’t know well. Don’t risk upsetting your fellow learners; skip the sarcasm.

  1. Keep firm boundaries

Keep your online communications on topic and avoid the temptation to get overly chatty or casual. By staying friendly but all business, you’ll be in a position to keep your boundaries firm and keep communications civil, on-topic, and safe. If boundaries are breached, politely redirect the conversation to the classroom topic. People will get the message that irrelevant chatter has gone too far.

  1. Think before you type

While in-person conversations allow for on-the-fly clarifications, the digital world is much more unforgiving. Besides preventing the regret that comes with later thoughts of “I wish I hadn’t send that email,” a thoughtful approach to digital communication ensures that you say what you mean and that you come across as engaged and professional. In short, think before you type.

  1. Be mindful about personal information

Whether it’s your personal information or personal information about others, be careful about disseminating any sensitive information online. Avoid sharing addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates in a public forum, and think twice before you share details of your personal life.

  1. Fact-check before you post

Apply the same factual scrutiny to online communications that you would for a research paper. While honest factual mistakes in discussions will occur, using reliable and academically approved sources is the best practice to avoid many of these situations. Just because you’re posting on a message board doesn’t mean you can copy and paste info from the web and skip citing your sources. Plagiarism is plagiarism. Period.

  1. Follow HIPPA guidelines

For healthcare students and professionals, breaking HIPPA guidelines is a big deal. HIPPA ensures that medical professionals and employers protect sensitive patient information and prevent disclosure without the individual’s consent. Anytime patient information is involved, always review your communications to ensure that HIPPA guidelines are met.

Patient confidentiality is essential for ensuring trust between patients and medical professionals and is a foundational tenant of an effective healthcare system. One careless email or post can ruin that trust and maybe even prevent a patient from seeking care.

  1. Say no to fancy fonts

Communication within an academic environment is dictated by generally accepted professional standards—and those standards don’t include flowery, fun, and fancy fonts. Aside from the fact that some fonts are challenging to read, they also lack the seriousness that a student is expected to convey. Stick to standard fonts like Cambria, Times, and Arial. Additionally, avoid using emojis. Just think about it; little cartoon illustrations aren’t likely to contribute to your image as a dedicated, hardworking student.

  1. Don’t interrupt on video calls

Just as you wouldn’t disrupt a lecture, avoid interrupting in-class video calls. Disruptions can lead to the loss of valuable learning time, and they aren’t respectful to others who are on task. During video conferences, free-flowing conversations can be difficult within larger groups. If you have questions, wait for an appropriate time to interject or ask your question via email or in the chat.

Internet Etiquette Standards by Platform

General academic netiquette covers many situations, but unique platforms often come with their own set of guidelines for digital discourse. The following section explores several online platforms, their netiquette expectations, and how those expectations relate to both healthcare and general students.

Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are commonly used in online classes, taking the place of traditional in-class discussions. Even though you’re typing rather than talking, the same thoughtfulness and respect that you’d bring to an in-class chat should govern what you post on a discussion board. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.

Discussion board netiquette suggests that you keep up with the conversation and refrain from repeating discussion topics and questions that have already been answered. Stay on topic and keep the conversation respectful. Healthcare students should take care to accurately reference medical information and provide sources for cited materials.

Email

Email is a primary form of communication in many professional settings, so thinking through the netiquette is helpful. To start, your email address should be professional—a school email address is perfect. However if you’re using a personal email address, reconsider playful email addresses like [email protected] when tackling serious conversations with professors and other professionals. Get into the habit of communicating as you would when working in the field.

When writing an email, include a clear subject line. Start with a proper greeting such as “Dear Dr. Isaacson,” rather than a casual expression such as “Hey Prof.” Also, be polite and reply to any email you receive, even if you just confirm receipt and state your next step. Before you send an email, always be sure to proofread; avoid spelling and grammar errors at all costs.

Social Media

Social media doesn’t have a reputation for civility or etiquette, but that doesn’t mean you can discard the netiquette guidelines used for other modes of online communication. Social media users should use respectful language and always remember that, despite the sometimes anonymous nature of social media, a real person with real emotions wrote the post. Students can face serious disciplinary actions if they behave inappropriately online.

As always, if a situation involves patient information, privacy and confidentiality is paramount. Patient information does not belong on social media. If you’re communicating on behalf of a professional entity, such as writing a health info blog on behalf of a student nurses’ association, be mindful of what you post. Make sure your sources are rock-solid and never give examples that could compromise patient confidentiality.

Video Demonstrations & Lectures

Even though online students may feel removed from the traditional operations of a college or university, a virtual classroom has the same behavior guidelines as an in-person environment. An instructor or presenter deserves your attentiveness and respect during a synchronous lecture or video demonstration . This means minimizing distractions and interruptions. While asking questions is always encouraged in a learning environment, be aware of the situation and only interject when appropriate. Sometimes it may be helpful to jot down your questions and ask them through email, on a discussion board, in the chat, or at another time.

Zoom Clinicals

With social distancing requirements, the hands-on part of your studies may instead be conducted online. Anytime you’re participating in a video conference, choose a well-lit location that’s clean and quiet. Minimize distractions; while you may think your cat is adorable, having your cat on camera probably doesn’t convey the professional attitude you’re looking for.

For Zoom clinicals, be especially mindful of HIPPA regulations in all communications, making sure any patient information is discussed in complete privacy. Your attire and surroundings should exude the professionalism that you’d expect from any medical professional.

Communicating with Your Professors Online

In an online learning environment, how you communicate plays a significant role in how you are perceived—and it might even influence your grade. As a result, professionalism is paramount in emails, on message boards, and during virtual classes. Read on for examples of what you should and shouldn’t do when communicating with professors online.

Appropriate Communication Inappropriate Communication
Using your academic email account not only looks more professional, but it’ll also help make sure your email doesn’t get caught in a spam filter. Plus, your school email address is typically based on your name, so your professor will recognize that a student is reaching out. Using a personal email address that you created in middle school probably won’t provide the level of professionalism that professors expect of their students. Online students build their reputations through digital platforms rather than in person; this means that a silly-sounding email address can influence a professor’s perception of you.
“Dear Dr. Smith”—When sending an email, best practice suggests that you use a more formal greeting. If you’re unsure about the instructor’s level of education, you can substitute “Professor” for “Dr.” You can use a more informal salutation such as “Hello Dr. Smith” if you’ve had regular communication and the professor/student relationship is a bit more familiar. “Hi Dr. Smith!”—This option is a bit informal, especially when reaching out to a new professor. Typically you won’t need exclamation points in a professional email, so if you find yourself using them, reread to see if they’re necessary. Keeping your correspondence professional shows your instructor that you take their class seriously.
Attentiveness during online classes and lectures—During synchronous online courses, be sure to pay attention, eliminate distractions, and engage in discussions respectfully and at appropriate times. Even if you don’t find a lecture especially interesting, staying engaged with the content shows your professor that you came to learn. Not all communication is verbal or written. If you log in to an online lecture and give the impression that you can’t stay awake or would rather be somewhere else, your professor may notice. Additionally, the space you use to attend virtual classes could distract from class content. Find a quiet space, keep your camera on, and be ready to answer questions.
Your written communication should be professional. Use complete sentences and punctuation, and watch out for spelling and grammar mistakes. The language you choose is a direct reflection of your level of professionalism. Corresponding with a professor via email is different from your Facebook posts and texts with friends. Don’t use slang, short-hand, emojis, and anything else that might take away from the professionalism that your instructor expects.
Especially for healthcare students, when communicating about patients be sure to speak in generalities. HIPPA regulations and client confidentiality ensure that those receiving medical attention consent to their private information being shared. Sharing sensitive, specific information regarding medical patients without their consent—whether it’s through email, in a virtual class, or on social media—violates the confidentiality patients expect and deserve. When a patient’s private information is made public, trust in the healthcare system erodes.

Dialing in Your Digital Communication: Expert Advice

Julia Esteve Boyd has been an etiquette consultant for more than 15 years. She has taught members of royal families and business people around the world; students at prestigious finishing schools; and young graduates preparing for interviews, internships, and first jobs.

Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes online college students make in terms of how they communicate with peers and professors online?

A: Being too informal! One of the biggest mistakes is that when we are more comfortable and relaxed at home, we tend to forget the simple things such as posture, body language, mannerisms, etc. It’s so easy to relax in a way that we wouldn’t in a face-to-face situation. Remember that during an online session the focus on individuals can be more intense than usual, so your every movement can be open to interpretation.

Q: How can students convey their personalities on digital forums while still maintaining professionalism?

A: If the basic rules of courtesy are respected, you can be free to convey your individual thoughts and personality traits. As long as you remember to show interest in others by listening, being positive, logging in on time, showing respect, being well-groomed, etc., then if you want to relax and share a joke or voice an honest opinion you should absolutely do so! You can be professional and show your true self and the same time. We are not robots and we need people to show their personalities.

Q: What important elements might students forget in online classes?

A: Participation! It’s easy to sit at the back of an in-person class and not participate, but in an online class your lack of participation will be noticed. Also, when you do speak/contribute, the focus will be entirely on you as opposed to in a classroom situation when perhaps not everyone will look at you. So your posture, gestures, tone and speed of voice, and whether you smile or not are very important.

Q: If you could provide one piece of advice for online students, what would that be?

A: Be prepared! Know your audience and present the best version of yourself. In a face-to-face meeting or interview, you can give a good impression by your full appearance, posture, and body language. In an online situation your options are more limited. Keeping notes beside you to remind you to sit up straight, keep your eyes on the professor, and not to have anything in your hands besides class materials can help.

Q: What advice would you give to healthcare students transitioning into telehealth, supervised clinicals, etc.?

A: The problem with online communication is that many people feel it’s too informal. I have found that some people behave differently during Zoom/Teams/Skype sessions and this tends to give others the impression of unprofessionalism. Eating during sessions/meetings or looking at phone messages are behaviors that we wouldn’t do in normal face-to-face professional situations.

When it comes to the medical world the same rules of professional etiquette apply—especially with patients because they will probably feel that an online appointment is already less personal. Here are my recommendations for healthcare students to build good working habits and be taken seriously. 

  1. Ensure the environment is professional.
  • Make sure your environment is clean, tidy, and free of clutter. Personal items such as photos in the background can be distracting.
  • The room should be light and bright and look like a professional environment.
  • The patient needs to know that their privacy is protected by seeing that you’re in a private meeting space.
  • Avoid any background noises and keep your personal phone on silent.
  1. Maintain a professional appearance.
  • Wear appropriate attire in the same way you would dress for a face-to-face session. If it makes sense for the situation, wearing scrubs or a lab coat can help project a more professional image.
  • To avoid distractions, wear minimal jewelry and keep your hairstyle tidy.
  • Wearing a name badge and having your school’s logo behind or on the screen also helps keep meetings looking official.
  1. Think through greetings and introductions.
  • Introduce yourself using your full name. If you have a title of some type, include that too if it’s relevant. (Hi, I’m Olivia Parsons and I’m president of the student nurses’ honor society here at West Lake Community College.)
  • Allow the patient to introduce themselves.
  • Explain the process that will follow and check that equipment on both sides is working.
  • Inform the patient that you may write notes or type them during the session. If you’ll be looking at another monitor as you type, tell the patient that as well.
  • Confirm how long the session or consultation will last and when it will end.
  1. Communicate clearly and carefully.
  • Speak slowly and clearly to ensure the patient understands you.
  • Use positive body language, as it shows that you are engaged and listening. Make eye contact, nod periodically, and so forth.
  • Avoid negative body language such as crossing your arms or slouching in your chair. Remember, these actions can be perceived as showing lack of interest or empathy.
  • To finish the session, repeat and clarify any next steps such as the next appointment.

Netiquette Resources

This useful graphic helps students understand the importance of email etiquette, the parts of an email, and essential elements such as tone, format, and content.

A popular platform for online learning, Canvas offers a clear resource on netiquette and communication do’s and don’ts.

Colorado State offers a clear and concise list of rules to govern online discussions and includes topics such as the importance of reporting glitches that preclude active class participation.

Helpful whether you’re studying online or in person, these 50 essential resources cover everything from volunteer opportunities to self-care.

Excerpted from a book by Virginia Shea, this page highlights ten core rules to frame your online communications. While partially technical, it’s also an excellent reminder to respect people in a digital environment.

This resource covers general etiquette for online learners while also digging into the specifics of discussion boards, email, and online security.

Rasmussen offers a clear list of their top ten guidelines, covering everything from professionalism to editing.