Writing in the Second Person: Addressing Students Directly

Writing in the Second Person: Addressing Students Directly
Zachary Fruhling June 8, 2018

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A common concern about online courses is that they can be impersonal, with communication between instructors and students often being faceless and asynchronous. Although there are various collaboration and communication tools available to enable real-time communication, one of the simplest things you can do to make an online course more personal for students is to write the course in the second person, addressing students directly with the second-person pronoun “you” whenever possible. When students read materials written in the second person, it creates the impression that the instructor is speaking directly to them, albeit from a distance.

It can takes a conscious effort for an instructor, course writer, or an instructional designer to write in a friendlier, more conversational tone by addressing students directly in the second person. Old (often anachronistic) academic habits of using the generic third-person “one” or, even worse, the first person plural “we” (which is oddly distancing in tone, despite its attempt at inclusiveness) can be difficult to break.

Consider the difference in tone between the following three examples:


Example 1: Third Person Plural

Example 2: First Person Plural

Example 3: Second Person Singular

Students’ final papers should use correct APA style and formatting. We should always use correct APA style and formatting in our final papers. Your final paper should use correct APA style and formatting.

Of these three examples, Example 3, written in the second person singular, is the friendliest in tone without being any less clear about the nature of the requirements for the final paper. In contrast, Example 1, written in the third person plural, may be universal in scope (referring to students in general), but it is also distancing and impersonal in tone. Example 2, despite its attempt at inclusiveness by using the first-person plural pronoun “we,” can sometimes be perceived as being smug or condescending in tone at worst. Sadly, however, too many online courses and course materials are written in the style of Example 1 and Example 2 instead of the friendlier second person singular as in Example 3.

A corollary to using the second person and addressing students directly is not to shy away from using simple, imperative instructions. While Example 3 above may be friendlier than Example 1 and Example 2, Example 3 could be further improved by using the imperative mood in the form of a simple command. Although a simple command in the imperative mood does not use the word “you,” it is still addressed to the student or students directly, as shown in Example 4:

Example 4: Imperative Mood (Simple Command)

Use correct APA style and formatting in your final paper.

Some course writers will add the word “please” to instructions written as simple commands, as in “Please use correct APA style and formatting in your final paper.” But as polite as the word “please” can be in many interpersonal contexts, I do not advocate its use in imperative instructions in online courses. In this context, the word “please” tends to make instructions and requirements sound tentative or optional, whereas as simple command in the imperative mood, without the word “please,” is still firm yet friendly in tone, clearly indicating that the instructions convey actual requirements, not mere options or wishes.

While, strictly speaking, any one of these forms of instruction-giving is sufficient, they are not all equivalent in tone, and they can be perceived by students very differently. In my experience, writing in the second person and addressing students directly with “you,” using simple commands in the imperative mood as needed, strikes the best balance between friendliness in tone and lack of ambiguity about the instructions or requirements. At very least, when writing an online course, put yourself in your students’ position and read your own course writing from their point of view (not knowing you personally or what a nice person you really are). Addressing students directly, as you would in-class or if they were visiting your office hours, goes a long way toward creating a personal connection between instructors and students, even in the sometimes faceless anonymity of text-based online courses.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.

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