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I think this question holds for any kind of class, but if it actually makes a difference, it's a graduate level class.

Today I was drafting an email asking about uncertainties in a paper I'm supposed to do a presentation on. When posing the questions, I added what I think is the solution to the question. However, I am not sure wether or not I should actually include the attempt of answering my question on my own.

Pros

  • It shows that I actually tried to find a solution before writing them
  • It could make answering the email easy because they maybe don't have to explain much if I'm correct
  • Just asking the questions without any extra text (e.g the solution) makes the email itself seem blatant
  • It could reveal even more misunderstandings on my part, increasing the value of their answer

Cons

  • It just bloats the email, maybe making it less appealing to read and answer
  • They might not care what I think because they "have to" write their own answer anyway
  • (If the answer is way off, it might throw a bad light on me)

Neutral

  • Might depend on the person I'm asking

If it depends on the person I'm asking, how would I actually recognize wether he/she wants me to add my thoughts or not? Therefore, I am in confusion wether or not to add my attempts to the email or not.

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    "If the answer is way off, it might throw a bad light on me" would probably be much worse if you are way off during the presentation. – GoodDeeds May 10 at 21:49
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    As a matter of general principle, I believe it's better to err on the side of writting too much rather than too little. Skipping over superfluous text is easy. Figuring out what's left unwritten is hard. – Jakub Konieczny May 11 at 9:01
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    stackoverflow.com/help/how-to-ask and other pages with advice about writing questions across StackExchange sites may apply to asking questions to teachers. – Pere May 11 at 14:47
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    Partial solutions are much, much preferred to no attempt at a solution at all, no matter how muddled. – Tom May 11 at 23:19
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    That was not my intent so that sentence could probably be rephrased. My intention was to say that for any nontrivial question the teacher has to write an answer that is not something like "Youre right", even if a student already provided a (correct) answer – Hereks May 12 at 17:03

10 Answers 10

88

Yes absolutely include it. That's the only way for the instructor to see where the gaps in your knowledge are. If you think it makes the email too long, then put a concise summary at the top and then the details below.

Edit: consider also that in the above post, you attempted to answer your own question. Look how much context that gave to the question. Imagine if you'd posted the title and the bolded statement only. We would not have understood your thought process. You might not have received many useful answers, just comments asking you to clarify what you were asking

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    In research this is called "Negative Results". There is a general stigma to negative results reporting but there is movement to remove that to make it more inclusive of all research results. – Nelson May 11 at 6:46
  • You could also include only the summary in the email body and have the rest in an attachment. (Depending on what your work is, it might not format well directly in an email.) – Laurel May 12 at 15:14
  • @Nelson: And there is a stigma because... lots of people try to cover up negative results? I don't know how well it is known, but we have a reproducibility crisis in science and statistical crisis in psychology... – user21820 May 13 at 7:15
  • @user21820 I'm sure the "because" is far too broad to discuss in a comment, but in general, doing research and then saying "It didn't work" tend to not make it into papers. – Nelson May 13 at 8:16
  • @Nelson: Yes I'm aware of publication bias, as well as p-hacking and other bad things. – user21820 May 13 at 8:28
18

In a reasonable grad-level teaching situation, the prof/teacher (should!?!) absolutely want to hear your thoughts/confusions/partial-solutions.

Sure, there is a balance that you/we/they need to find, about balancing your own work (possibly dragging out too long and wasting your own time due to some misapprehension) and "asking questions".

It is generally better to at least have (and express) your own thoughts, even if you've gotten stuck or disheartened. That does also show that you've put some effort in, so are not simply being lazy. :)

It is true that organization and formatting of emails is very important in effective communication. Shorter things are easier to organize, of course, but may be inadequate to communicate your message. Then the inescapable burden of organization itself becomes significant... and problems of clarity (or lack thereof) grow.

But, as most of the time, "being coy" is not a helpful communication scheme.

Conceivably your task really is to "figure it out all on your own", but that's a bit misguided in my opinion (being at least a time-waster), and should not be the default way you think of your professor/teacher.

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11

Put the question up front in a terse form in the subject. This allows to know the topic before opening the mail.

Then repeat the question in a longer single sentence para at the start of your email. This allows to perhaps satisfy you immediately without reading the details. And if it is required to read the details at least the prof knows where the story is headed

Then blather the details after with a header, "Details:" or preliminary efforts, or some topical headers.

And don't really blather in that details section. Write concisely and with a structure. But include details. Your pro con here was good.

Executive communication requires to put the "so what" at the front, not after a buildup. And definitely not after a stream of consciousness.

Oh...and the same applies to SE questions. ;)

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  • I really like this approach – Hereks May 11 at 14:12
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    Thanks man. The point is to have the cake and eat it too from your pros and cons. If you only send "short copy" in an email, it causes more work with future back and forth communication. Like when someone leaves a voicemail and says the phone number so fast you have to listen to it three times. But by having the key elements up front and separated, it allows to disregard or at least skim the details, if so inclined. – guest May 11 at 14:51
7

You should definitely include your initial attempts/thinking in the email. Otherwise, it becomes difficult for the professor to see what you are specifically having trouble understanding about the problem. Plus, it is considered rude (at least in my experience) to not show your thinking; the professor may think that you just want the answer.

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6

The general rule of thumb, in my opinion, is that you should do what results in the least work from the professor in order to answer your query. Professors receive a LOT of e-mail, and it takes up a lot of our time. The faster we can answer questions (while still providing illumination), the happier we are.

In general, this will usually mean providing as much as possible of your attempted solution. This enables your professor to quickly identify your particular difficulty and address it; otherwise, they are just left with providing a generic solution and leaving you to figure out where you went wrong.

Having said that, providing working can sometimes be taken to extremes: I once had a student e-mail me with 3 pages of handwriting and the question "where is the mistake?". This clearly fails the rule of thumb I mentioned above.

A wrong solution almost never throws a bad light on you, although I wouldn't say it was impossible; you'd have to be REALLY off (as in, did-not-listen-to-any-lectures off) for that to happen.

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3

Yes. @DanielK’s excellent answer explains the main logic behind why this is a good idea. But another large benefit that wasn’t mentioned yet is that when you go through the process of explaining your thought process in detail to another person, quite frequently you will end up realizing what the answer is by finding the misconception or having the thing you were confused about suddenly become completely clear and obvious.

I’ve seen this happen many times when students start asking a question and in the process of explaining themselves to me they suddenly understand what the issue is and I end up not needing to say anything.

(It’s also happened to me on the other side of the situation when I was the person asking a question of other people.)

This is the best way for learning to occur. And you won’t even need to send the email! Win-win for everyone.

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2

As a teacher dealing with student questions (whether by email or in person) what matters most to me is not length but specificity. Questions which are vague or overly broad are a pain to deal with regardless of whether they are long or short. The shortest (“I don’t understand …” or “How do you do …?”) are often the worst, but long emails that end with “What did I do wrong?” aren’t all that far behind.

A good question is one which is specific. The more specific the better. In making a question specific, you will need to provide details (i.e. make the question longer) but the specificity will also help you identify stuff that is extraneous to your question so that you don’t provide more information than is needed.

As an added bonus, specific questions show me, the teacher, that you, the student, are putting forward a good faith effort to understand the material on your own. Though I should be equally willing to help all students, psychologically it is always much easier to engage with a student whom I can see trying. Students who are just fishing for answers and ones who are trying but don’t ask specific questions often look the same (especially via email). Combine that with an external stressor, and I may just give you a brush off that you don’t deserve. Obviously I try to avoid that, but I’m only human and cannot be perfect all of the time.

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2

I'm just going to post an additional remark on your last "con" argument about wrong answers putting you in a bad light.

No competent teacher is going to view you any worse because you gave a completely wrong answer. A teacher's goal, first and foremost, should be making sure their students understand the concepts they are taught. And a core part of understanding is making mistakes.

Very few people are smart enough to be able to understand everything without a single mistake from the very first time they learn about something. It would be completely asinine as a teacher to expect anything even remotely like full understanding from your students from the very start.

I'll even top that: Not even the teacher is expected to fully understand everything correctly, because there are always things that are just that slightly harder to understand than what the teacher is capable of. A teacher who says they know everything is misguided, lying or ignorant of the things they don't know (the unknown unknowns).

You should never be afraid of giving an appropriate wrong answer in school. That's what school is for: learning the correct answers, or learning where the correct answers can be found. A teacher who thinks less of you, or worse, ridicules you for giving a wrong answer is a bad teacher who should not be teaching.

A good teacher won't ridicule you or think less of you. If your answer is wrong, they'll say so and point you towards the correct answer. If your answer is REALLY wrong, they'll say so and point you towards the correct answer, if necessary reminding you to review the basics again. They might do some venting in the teacher's lounge, but they'll keep a professional and kind demeanor towards you.

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0

Regardless of the setting (academic, industry, government, hobby, stackoverflow, etc...), when you ask someone else for help, it is always a good idea to explain what you've tried so far and the thought process that lead you there. Be concise, but don't leave out any important details.

After all, you're asking for someone else to give you some of their time to help solve your problem, even though they certainly have no shortage of their own problems to work on. Make it as easy as possible for them to help you. It demonstrates respect and gives them useful information that will make any ensuing discourse more productive and efficient– all things that will help persuade them that it's worth investing a bit of time to help you. Really, that is something any decent teacher should want to do as it is quite literally their job.

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0

As a compromise between the two extremes consider the following approach:

Dear Professor Xavier,

I have finished my presentation on mutant transmogrification, but I had a question regarding the nanoregressive turboencabulator principle that I wanted to double check with you. Specifically, it is not obvious to me why Magneto-enhanced particles would disrupt a portal generated by a flux-capacitor.

I have outlined my own approach to this in the attached file in case you'd like to have a look.

Best regards,
Wolverine

This keeps your main email clean, while allowing one to open a separate document if interested, promoting the idea that this is more of a secondary document.


While I am a fan of proper exposition, I reluctantly admit that many a time I've lost my audience with what was intended to be a helpfully comprehensive email, and have had much better success at sending short, terse, incomplete-feeling messages, building up iteratively if necessary.

Same experience on stackoverflow, in fact. :|

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