Teaching Essentials

Instructor / Student Communication Protocols


Based on the results of the Instructor survey conducted last November, one of the issues that was clearly identified by Instructors with regard to teaching and learning in the online environment was that of student/Instructor communications.  As a result, a communication protocol document was developed based on feedback gathered in the survey and from best practices identified in a review of the academic research literature associated with this topic.

The Faculty Work Assignment Implementation Advisory Group presented the draft protocol to faculty via open sessions and based on that feedback, the protocol document was approved by the Senior Academic Committee.  We are happy to present you with the finalized Instructor Student Communications Protocol (attached). This document is also available on the Faculty Workload Assignment Microsoft Team Site.

If you have any questions regarding the protocol, please contact Arnold Boldt, Executive Director, Academic at awboldt@rrc.ca.


The following instructor/student communication protocol provides:

  1. General principles that inform how communication between instructors and students should take place in the online environment;
  2. Guidelines that highlight College-approved methods (software and platforms) to be used for instructor/student communications;
  3. Guidelines that set boundaries around “reasonably timely” instructor availability during the week and expected response times to student inquires, course assignments and assessments;
  4. Guidelines to follow if considering use of non-College approved software, platforms and devices to communicate with students; and,
  5. Some electronic communication etiquette to facilitate safe student/instructor communication.


Communication between instructors and students in the online environment should be guided by principles of being mutually respectful, responsive, approachable, communicative, organized, transparent and consistent.

  • Respectful – fair, understanding, flexible, caring, patient, helpful, open-minded, sincere, empathetic, trustworthy, realistic
  • Responsive – available, helpful, efficient, perceptive, accommodating – timely feedback
  • Approachable – friendly, personable, helpful, accessible, positive
  • Communicative – clear, understandable, thorough, constructive, attentive
  • Organized – efficient, focused, prepared
  • Transparent – open, published, proactive
  • Consistent – dependability, reliability, regularity


Regardless of the learning and teaching environment, establishing and maintaining positive relationships remains an essential element for successful student learning.

Clear, consistent and transparent communication between you and your students is crucial for successful course completion in the online teaching context. Instructors should have a clear communication plan prepared in advance of the course start date. The plan should explicitly and clearly lay out both the method(s) students can use to communicate with you and the response times in which they can expect timely feedback from you. It is important for students to know exactly what methods you will use to communicate with them so they will know where to look for your communications. Conversely, it is also important to let students know what method(s) they can communicate with you in various situations, general, private or emergency. Communication channels are the students’ lifeline.

Learners benefit from posing their own questions to apply concepts and move through the learning hierarchy (from theory to application) and also from listening to others’ questions. In order to maximize those collective interactions, instructors will communicate the benefit to the learners of their asking questions in group settings. Instructors will create and promote student communication in group settings to minimize individual questions to the instructor to enhance learning collective opportunities for the entire class. This approach is also beneficial from an instructor workload perspective as it avoids individual student communications.

Method of Communication

Central to clear communication with students (a lifeline for students) is the principle of consistency. Consistency is achieved by using College-approved platforms and software—such as, LEARN, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and RRC Polytech email, and, subject to accessibility issues. Consistency is also achieved by providing parameters around reasonable time periods when communication and response can occur.

  1. Be explicit about the platform(s) that will be used for course delivery; for example, courses are developed and delivered in LEARN, using MS Teams OR WebEx for synchronous delivery (use only College-approved platforms).
  2. Be explicit about where the link to your synchronous course can be found: post it in LEARN and/or send an email to students. 
  3. Create an MS Teams channel or LEARN discussions for course-related questions, that may affect fellow students; be sure to check and respond to the forum regularly (daily or 3x per week) during the week. The communications through MS Teams channel or LEARN discussions can, in turn, be turned into FAQ documents for future course delivery.
  4. Designate regular “office hours” via video-conferencing (MS Teams, WebEx), if possible, at a specified time for course questions or comments, no appointment necessary (e.g., once or twice per week from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m.); or provide students with “reasonable availability” —ask them to direct message (DM) you via MS Teams regarding availability or setting an appointment, which can also be done by MS Teams bookings
  5. Create a hierarchy of contact methods, a communication hierarchy that outlines methods of communicating for specific purposes, from general course matters to private to emergency.
  6. General messages – provide a single, consistent method of delivering course announcements to the class be that through LEARN, MS Teams or another College-approved messaging service, and let students know how often you will be posting announcements (weekly, bi-weekly)
    1. Personal1 or formal course matters – have students use RRC Polytech email to contact you about a personal or formal matter or to arrange an appointment with you, or
    2. Private2 matters – have students use direct messaging (DM) via chat in MS Teams or another approved communication channel for private student matters
    3. Time-sensitive matters3 – students could use RRC Polytech email or DM in cases of where they may not be able to attend a scheduled class or an assessment. Instructors should confirm with their class/students what constitute time-sensitive matters
    4. Exams – provide exam details in advance, including start time, exam length, as well as method of contact should students have questions or technical issues during an exam

College-sponsored communication software, platforms and devices are the only approved methods of instructor-to-student and student-to-instructor communications. Although it is not recommended that personal phones, email or other platforms be used, the College recognizes exceptions in certain circumstances—accessibility or practicum placements, for example. 

If there is a requirement to use non-College-approved software, platforms or devices for communication, it is recommended that a “Privacy Impact Assessment” be completed through LEARN Support, who will work with ITS to determine impact. Should exceptions be granted, they will be regularly evaluated with the goal of bringing the exception back in line with the standard at some point if reasonable and possible. Learn more about College-approved technologies and starting a privacy impact assessment.

Note also that privacy and confidentiality are important for course delivery and class meetings. Only registered students should be viewing and hearing fellow students’ communication, whether it is written, in a live (synchronous) class or meeting.


1 These could be matters related to a specific assessment (grading) or consultation regarding an assignment, and not of relevance to other students in the class.

2 These could be private matters related to a student’s health, family situation, or other private concern. See also the Crisis Response Protocol for Faculty, developed by Safety and Health.

3 Examples of time-sensitive matters may include illness precluding class attendance, technology issues such as computer or Wi-Fi problems, for example. 

Response Times

It is important for instructors to provide parameters around reasonable response times to various communications from students for several reasons. First, instructors are expected to respond to student inquiries and provide feedback on assignments in a reasonably timely manner. Second, students should know what to expect with response communications. Instructor availability 24/7 is not reasonable; nor is it an expectation.

Reasonable response times may vary depending on the class schedule and type of response required. Generally speaking, 24 – 72 hours will be the range of reasonable response times to non-emergency communications. If the class schedule is during weekdays, then a response within 24 hours during the week is reasonable; and no responses are required over the weekend. Instructors should also provide boundaries around daily response time limits: for example, you may not be responding to email after 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m. on weekdays. The principle for response times is to support the learner to continue to advance through the material.

Electronic Communication Etiquette

This communication etiquette is provided for both instructors and students. Communicating in non-face-to-face forums is significantly different from communicating face-to-face; therefore, extra attention needs to be paid to messaging clearly and completely.

Note: These guidelines were created by RRC Polytech Counselling and Accessibility Services to help students with communicating their needs by email. The guidelines are equally applicable in student / instructor communication, since they ensure that instructors will have the information needed to work with every student in the most efficient – as well as respectful – manner possible.

Emails are great because…Some downsides of emails…
They are quick and easy to create and edit.They can be too quick and easy to create – which may not be optimal when emotions are running high.
They allow time to coordinate thoughts and ideas.They can be confusing when items such as fonts, grammar, or highlights are used inappropriately.
They are easy to access and store.They can’t always fully support clear communication – using items such as body language, volume, and tone.

Create a great problem-solving email by considering the following tips:

Be brief. Consider what is essential to communicate, what areas are within your control, and what do you need help with to resolve the concern.Don’t include details that are not essential or relevant to the concern – try to keep it brief so that the reader can quickly easily identify your concerns. Avoid repetition. A clear and concise email will help speed up response time.
Focus on the facts about the main issue, as well as what a possible solution could look like.Don’t focus on personal opinions. Focus on the facts.
Review the email carefully for appropriate punctuation and grammar, as well as the overuse of items such as BOLD FONT, USE OF CAPS, AND UNDERLINING main points. Recognize that these stylistic choices can come across as aggressive.Don’t overuse BOLD FONT, USE OF CAPS, AND UNDERLINING main points, as these stylistic choices can come off as aggressive. Don’t forget to review for grammar, punctuation, and tone.
Read the email out loud to ensure clarity. Ask a friend or trusted support person to review and provide feedback about tone and clarity.Don’t indicate a matter is high priority or urgent unless it actually is. Be patient and wait at least 48 hours to allow for a thoughtful response.
Only send to the people that are the most directly involved in resolving the concern and who need to know. Copying individuals who are not directly involved in the matter can cause confusion and delay response time.Don’t copy people on the email that are not directly involved with the concern. This will help ensure your email is received by the right person, and that they can respond in a timely manner.
Consider waiting 24 hours before sending an email if your emotions are strong at the time of writing. Suggest a reasonable timeframe for response and communicate a follow up plan that is respectful of everyone’s time.Don’t hit ‘send’ when emotions are strong – wait 24 hours if you can. Don’t send frequent emails requesting a response or follow up when one request will suffice.
Include your program + course + section code and a short course-related topic in the subject line. New topic requires new email.Don’t use vague or off-topic in your subject lines; or forget to identify yourself and the course in which you are enrolled.

It is best practice if each academic program (all instructors teaching in one program) would commit to a single communication protocol so that all students in that academic program would use the same methods of communicating for the same issues or activities. This will mitigate student confusion regarding communication channels and expectations and promote time efficiencies for both instructors and students.


Additional Resources

Crisis Response Protocol for Faculty

High – Same Day Crisis

During Hours
After Hours
  1. Ask student if there is someone you can call for them
  2. Review Community Crisis Resources with student and invite them to connect with one
  3. If on-campus and requiring transport, Security Services provides Safe Ride to Crisis Response Centre
  4. If the student does not agree to connect with resources and you believe they or someone else is at immediate risk of harm, call 911 and provide the student’s address
  5. Email your Dean and Chair summarizing the incident. Copy the appropriate Student Support Service representative
  6. Support Services will reach out by phone or email the next business day

Medium – Student Struggling

Directory of Student Support Services

For consultation regarding student concerns contact:

Laureen Janzen
Manager, Counselling & Accessibility Services
Ext. 2121 or ljanzen@rrc.ca

Jodi Pluchinski
Director, Safety & Health Services
Ext. 2395 or jpluchinski@rrc.ca

Jaime Richard
Manager, External Indigenous Relations & Partnerships
Ext. 2915 or jrichard@rrc.ca

Eddy Lau
Director, Centre for International Education and Global Partnerships
Ext. 2184 or elau@rrc.ca

Recommended Training

Supporting Students in Distress While Teaching Remotely is a 90-minute faculty development workshop that prepares participants to support student well-being and respond effectively when a student is in distress.  See Faculty Development or contact Breanna Sawatzky to request this workshop. When in-person professional development returns, safeTALK: Suicide Alertness of Everyone is highly recommended