How a smiley face can improve faculty-student communication

A new survey explores the relationship between students and faculty based on the use of emoji in digital exchanges—with instructors who use them perceived as warmer and more influential.

The human race is forging a new digital language as texts and internet exchanges become more common than phone calls and in-person meetings. While students are fluent in “digital speak,” higher ed faculty are working to fine-tune their online dialect.

A new survey from the University of Edinburgh Business School in the United Kingdom explores the relationship between students, faculty and their digital exchanges—particularly how emoji use colors their interactions.

University staff who use smiley faces and other emoticons when communicating with students are perceived as warmer, and are more influential with students, according to the survey. Students were sampled from a paid panel on the U.K.-based Prolific website, and were compensated with an hourly rate. The experiment was completed by 256 U.K. students: 157 females, 175 undergraduates and 81 postgraduates.

Some students perceived instructors who use emoji as less competent than those who don’t use the emoticons. However, the positive perceptions outweigh the drop in competence, “leading students to give higher scores in course evaluations and making them more compliant in carrying out academic tasks,” says Ben Marder, senior marketing lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Business School, who led
the research.

Overall, researchers were surprised how much emoji improved communication between students and professors. Students cited examples of “yes” and “no” emails that left them feeling unsure. “The curt nature of these emails left them open to interpretation and made students feel anxious that they had done something wrong, though this is nearly certainly not the intention of a professor, but just reflects the time pressure that academics are under,” says Marder. “However, it takes less than a second to transform ‘yes’ to a smiling emoji.

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