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I've been a Computer Sciences student for 4 years now, give or take, and my experience with emailing teachers/professors (teachers from now on) has been either of two cases:

  • they reply to my entire email
  • they read the last sentence or paragraph and reply to that.

Generally, if a teacher fits in one of those categories, they always respond like that.
However, for me it's quite frustrating to receive an email back (within 5 minutes, an hour, a day) with a reply, to only one point, and then having to mail back with my other questions, removing one question at a time.

To note: my e-mails are always very respectful, neatly written, and without spelling or other mistakes.

What can I do to get a higher percentage-of-questions-answered-per-email response?

  • 57
    Your inquiry emails should not be more than one paragraph. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 11 '18 at 14:57
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    Send more emails. This is not a problem with only teachers/professors but everywhere. Honestly, some people just don't seem to care to even remember what they just read. So don't ask more than one question. – DonQuiKong Jan 11 '18 at 17:43
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    For what it's worth, you run into this with people in the business world too. It's an email thing, not an academia thing. Learning to cope with it now is an important skill no matter what you do with your life unless you wind up not often using email in your daily life (and being a CS student, I find that... unlikely...) – corsiKa Jan 11 '18 at 20:19
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    @DonQuiKong From personal experience, both sending & receiving if somebody, senior or junior, sends multiple emails in a short time period some recipients are far more likely to only reply to the last "unit" than in one well-structured email. – origimbo Jan 11 '18 at 20:40
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    (Not in Academia) FWIW, I always itemise my emails. It looks silly, but it does draw attention to the individual points. – Strawberry Jan 11 '18 at 23:10
95

Professors are busy and receive a lot of mail (> 100 per day, not counting mass-mailings). It's rational for them to skim past the salutations and introductory parts until the end, where you usually find "the gist". Obviously, this filter is fast but imperfect.

To ensure that you get a response to all of your questions, write very short and very neat emails. Also make it as clear as the day what you want the respondent to do. Finally, don't bother asking questions to which you can simply look up the answer:

Dear Professor Foo,

this is about our discussion after the last seminar on FooBar.

  1. Should I hand in my essay before or after the last session? I couldn't find this on the syllabus.
  2. I was also wondering if you could recommend a textbook on BarBaz.

Kind regards

Foo Baz

There really isn't more you can do. If you still get partial responses, write another mail about only the remaining items (as you do).

  • 27
    Short is important. I've seen (and been guilty of in the past) emails that are full of polite, wordy fluff, which ends up just being tedious stuff to wade through to find the actual content. I've find you get much better responses with a format described in this answer. – Mike A. Jan 11 '18 at 15:06
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    And when email particularly egregious non-answerers, keep it to a single question and potentially bold the important parts. – Mike A. Jan 11 '18 at 15:07
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    In my (non-academic) experience, it helps to use numbered questions. – TRiG Jan 11 '18 at 15:17
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    +1 for numbering questions directly. As a TA, I hated having to parse through paragraphs where the actual question was interspersed through the paragraph between filler sentences, apologies for stupidity, qualifications/justifications for the question etc. With a number system it automatically puts my brain in check list mode and I am cued into responding directly to each question in my reply email. – syntonicC Jan 11 '18 at 15:35
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    @MikeA. phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1047 continues to be relevant. – David Richerby Jan 12 '18 at 22:12
44

I've been guilty of this kind of thing.

The emails I receive can be roughly taxonomized into two categories:

A. Those I can quickly answer while waiting in line at Starbucks, sitting on the bus, waiting for a late thesis proposal to start, etc. These emails usually get a very prompt answer from me.

B. Those that will require me to sit down and dedicate large amounts of time to a reply. These go into a priority queue and I have the best of intentions to try to answer them quickly, as soon as I first answer emails from the funding agencies and school administration; finish that grant proposal or paper due next week; finish that late paper review the editor has been harassing me about; write that recommendation letter for that other student; answer my colleague's email about a discrepancy they've found in one of my old papers; prepare the lecture for tomorrow class, .........

So, I'm standing in line at Starbucks, and get an email from you with a list of questions:

  1. When is Assignment 3 due?
  2. I'm having trouble on problem 6. Here are 3 pages of poorly-written work. Can you help me find the problem?
  3. Are we allowed to work in teams on problem 7?

Now, I could treat the whole email as a Category B, and get back to you with complete answers to all three questions in a few hours, days, weeks, ... Or I'll fire off a Category A email answering only parts 1 and 3, under the assumption that you'll ask me again about part 2 if it's important to you, or with the intention (perhaps misguided) of remembering to answer the last part sometime later.

What's the fix?

  1. Try to send emails containing only one question per email;

  2. If you must include multiple questions, make sure they're all Category A questions;

  3. If you get back a reply with only a partial answer, email about the missing parts again.

10
  1. Keep it short. Bear in mind that professors have lives too and verbosity costs them time. (Moreover, it's hard to handle long emails on mobile devices, and yes, professors use those too!)

  2. In the first line of the email, state what you need and when. For example, "Hi Professor, I have three questions on the assignment you set for ECON302. Would you mind answering by Wed, April 4 so I have time to complete the assignment? The questions are below. Thanks."

(Regarding #1, as a very long time email user I've noticed a cultural change in what an email represents. Used to be like a memo or letter. Now, it's more like a text message. I'm sure the rise of mobile devices has something to do with it.)

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    Use email Subject line as well as first sentence of the message. Subject: Is Econ302 due on April 6, or later? is better than Subject: Question (H/t to the Overload Forum.) – Roger Bohn Jan 11 '18 at 21:59
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    ... but then repeat the question in the body! – kjetil b halvorsen Jan 14 '18 at 21:50
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I've encountered this issue both in and outside of academia. I have found success in only asking one question per email/text/post/IM. This ensures that answers are not diluted, and no questions are missed.

I will usually not send further questions until the previous one has already been responded to. This keeps me from being "spammy", and also helps in case one answer changes the nature of my follow-up questions. It also keeps my questions "modular", in case I want to rotate my questions between profs, TAs, etc.

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    I would not want to receive many singular messages. If someone has 3 questions to ask me, I would expect them to write those 3 questions in a single message. – ImportanceOfBeingErnest Jan 11 '18 at 20:44
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This is a very common form of miscommunication. Simply reiterate your initial questions, eventually with a better emphasis of what is being asked.

Also, it is possible that your teacher has decided to ignore your question, simply because they don't fall into the category of the questions meant to increase your understanding of the material. Such questions are:

  • Is there any problem if I won't submit my homework until 10 AM? (I was very tempted to reply that if no homework is submitted by 10 AM, Planet Earth will cease its axial rotation, but luckily for us, the Sun is already on the sky at 10 AM).
  • What shall I do to increase my grade?
  • Can I get a better grade?
  • Can I get a better grade, please?
  • What grade I would get if I would spend one hour more each week on your topic?
  • How much an absence is going to penalize my grade?
  • If I don't make my homework today, and I couldn't handle the difficult homework 4 weeks ago, can I still get a full 4?
  • I need a 4 for this class. (I was tempted to answer: and I need a program to perform sub-second 265 bit prime factorization, will give you a 4 if you procure me such a program).

Therefore, odds are that if the question is either administrative (and covered by the Syllabus) or grade related, it gets ignored.

  • +1 Though the example may be overly-verbose, the point here is worth realizing. As an instructor, I frankly didn't care if my students got a grade that is lower than they wanted. What I cared about is whether they worked hard enough to understand material well enough to be very well prepared for the post-graduation experience. Students may place a very high emphasis on grades, but often grades aren't nearly as life-impacting post-graduation as the strength of their skills, and so I cared enough about them enough to focus on what's probably really better for them in the long term. Not grades. – TOOGAM Jan 15 '18 at 5:21
  • Where I live there is a large number of huge companies. Their approach of hiring is that they make an offer to every student above 3 GPA. They function like a man-eating machine, they don't care much on skills or knowledge. The unlucky 2.98 GPA will likely join a small company and struggle or make a career in totally another field. This is why the undergrads really care about the grades, and there is nothing more important than grades to them. – user83564 Jan 15 '18 at 18:15
3

Do one of the following:

  • Send one email per question or request (often impracticable since it feels like nagging to get 5 consecutive emails from the same person, and related to boot).
  • Try coming to office hours or even scheduling phone calls if that's an option.
  • Start your email by an "executive summary" of sorts, e.g. "I'd like to ask two questions and make a request", then explain whatever you need.
  • End your email by saying you would be glad if they could answer your N questions or respond to points 1 through 3 above or something to that effect, so that if they just read the end of the email they'll have to go read more.
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What can I do to get a higher percentage-of-questions-answered-per-email response?

Your post here is a good example of what you are doing wrong: it is too verbose and contains a lot of information that is not necessary for answering the question. Here is how short you could make it without sacrificing anything important:

I am a student. When I email professors, often they only reply to what I said in the last sentence or paragraph. My e-mails are always respectful, neatly written, and free of mistakes. What can I do to get a higher percentage-of-questions-answered-per-email response?

This illustrates the principle that the email should have as high a signal-to-noise ratio as possible. I think this will go a long way to improving the response rate.

The suggestions made in other answers to number your questions, and to limit the number of questions to the absolute minimum (ideally, one per email) are also excellent.

0

Don't forget to observe whatever guidance your instructor has provided about communication. Personally I don't like responding to individual emails from students about things all students would benefit from knowing, and I ask students to ask questions on our online forum except for personal issues. Still, I get many broad emails filling up my inbox, so they get a lower priority.

0

TL;DL: Be very concise. Add a TL;DR sentence in the beginning of the email.


they read the last sentence or paragraph and reply to that.

There's your problem. As others have mentioned academics are incredibly busy and receive ~100 emails per day. Most of them won't have the time to read paragraphs of text.

How to solve this:

  1. Learn to be very concise. Most emails can be shortened to less than a paragraph. It's understandle if you cannnot do this easily right now but you can improve.

  2. Add a TL;DR part, just how I added in this answer, especially if your think that it's important to explain a lot of details. This is what I do with my supervisor and he appreciates it.

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