Saying thank you takes courage

When staff go above and beyond to offer support and inspiration, we know students are often grateful. But why are expressions of gratitude so difficult? Fiona Cownie draws on her research to find out more.

Students are starting to get used to university study having more to do with the quality of their wireless connection than whether the buses will get them in to campus on time for a  9am lecture.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the scrapping of face-to-face lectures, seminars and tutorials forced on us by the Covid 19 crisis may result in a cohort of learners whose appreciation of contact with academics will be higher than ever before. Gratitude is already evident within students and alumni, particularly gratitude towards academics. But in the past, this gratitude has rarely manifested itself in expressions of thanks. Could this be about to change?

It’s helpful to think of gratitude in two forms: feelings of gratitude (how we feel inside – only we know this) and expressions of gratitude (a word of thanks – visible to others – or at least the recipient of those thanks). They are distinct ideas and operate in different ways. We know that feelings of gratitude are a powerful driver of positive word-of-mouth. However, whilst feelings of gratitude generate positive conversations, they are a far less powerful driver of expressions of gratitude. Feelings of gratitude are a good thing; students value their university experience and want to do something about this. Curiously, if students do feel grateful, they talk positively to their friends and families and perhaps prospective students. But they aren’t so likely to actually say thank-you to academics.

A natural conversation

These daily online interactions in which we now find ourselves immersed might just be the right context for students to feel willing and confident to share their thanks more readily – if we can create an environment in which conversations with academics feel less loaded and are more spontaneous.

Saying thanks takes courage. It is clear that students see saying thank-you to academics as awkward, even ‘weird’. One second year student commented to me:

I really want to do it, but I need to have something else and I will say thank you with that

For her, power imbalance is an issue and saying thanks doesn’t seem important enough to merit specific communication.

They would probably appreciate it, but they’re probably thinking that is weird that I’m emailing them just to say thanks.

A Master’s student who emailed her thanks to a tutor, was concerned

about whether it was a professional thing to do

After graduation

Alumni seem to feel the same. While they may talk about deep feelings of gratitude towards the academics who taught them (or some of them at least), these feelings are not matched by expressions of thanks. Alumni talk about the awkwardness of thanking their former tutors. There is a sense that to get back in contact with an academic to say thanks might be construed as a sign of weakness. Or that it might be seen as irritating and sycophantic.

It is clear that whilst feelings of gratitude are heartfelt amongst students and alumni, particularly towards academics, expressions of gratitude certainly do not bear this out. Academics soldier on with a sense that students (current or past) don’t really care or value their contribution. But this is wrong, students do feel grateful to them. Students need to be shown how saying thank-you is courageous and that a small action can actually make a huge difference.

What you can do

If you agree that it’s good for expressions of thanks to be shared, then of course you have to play your part. How often do you thank your students? Could you be a better role model for showing them the importance of thanking others? Could you inspire students to show their thanks more often? I have tried to thank students regularly in class and particularly online for presentations delivered, posts shared, even comments posted. E-mails I send out to students are increasingly responded to with messages of thanks piggy-backing on students’ responses. In fact, online platforms are great facilitators of expressions of gratitude; there’s something distancing about them which probably makes saying thank-you feel less risky and awkward.

And we know that grateful students are talking positively about their university experiences. In a time of social distancing, the move to a virtual open day experience may not be as problematic as it seems especially if we ask academics to encourage students and alumni to contribute to these online events recommending prospective students to consider their university. Indeed, I’ve just seen on Instagram the most wonderful video compilation of moments from university life posted by one of our alumni dealing with the challenges of isolation and thinking back to her ‘happy place’.

University leaders and managers can feel confident that if their students and alumni are feeling grateful towards the academics with whom they have studied, positive conversations will be out there amongst families, friends and prospective students. Indeed, lockdown might be precisely the context for such conversations to thrive. We can all have the courage to share our gratitude.

One response to “Saying thank you takes courage

  1. As an academic and mother of two current UG students who are temporarily studying at home, I want to share my experience that echoes Fiona’s points. One of my sons was especially motivated and enthused following an online synchronous seminar. “Send an email to thank your tutor” I suggested, knowing how anxious we all are to ‘get it right’ for our students in this unfamiliar world of remote teaching. Evidently unconvinced by my suggestion, I told him how I would be really chuffed to receive such an email, especially on a Friday afternoon. Reluctantly, he sent the email – the tutor responded immediately, clearly delighted by the ‘thank you’. Positive vibes on all fronts.

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