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My sister's studying at a UK university remotely because of COVID. Each course has an internal online Q&A forum for students to ask questions, and instructors or students to answer. I don't want to divulge any more detail for the purpose of confidentiality.

The issue is that 2 particularly hotheaded students don't actually answer the question asked — let's call them Gunners. This is cumbersome because:

  1. my sister must add a comment, asking an instructor to answer the question.

  2. These Gunners' useless answers can mislead instructors astray and away. She notices that instructors prioritize unanswered questions, and disregard questions that a student putatively answered.

She doesn't know why these Gunners spree to answer - perhaps they are bored by COVID, or they want to impress the instructors. But she wants to tactfully request that the Gunners:

  1. stop answering her questions. She wants solely instructors to answer them.

  2. answer a question only when they are absolutely certain they read the question properly, and their answer is correct.

How could she best formulate such a request?

Here's an example of a useless answer. My sister asked

Does anyone have access LexisNexis or WestLaw for Canada and the USA for free? I already know that our library offers free access just to LexisNexis and Westlaw UK - I'm not asking about this.

One of these Gunners answered

Hi! Yes. Our library has links to LexisNexis and WestLaw for free. I hope this helps!

Obviously this doesn't answer her question, because she already knows about the libary's free links the UK versions of LexisNexis and WestLaw. She wants the North American versions!

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    What is the problem with tagging the instructors? If answering questions is their job, this should not be any problem. Furthermore, I dont think that it is problematic to politely comment the answers of the two hotheads and to state that their answers were „non-answers“. I would assume that directly contacting the hotheads will only lead to bad blood without any chance of improvement.
    – pbaer
    Jul 15 at 5:15
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    Welcome to Academia.SE! This is an interesting question, and an unfortunately common problem that has many different manifestations (including on this site!). I suggested a change to your phrasing because we don't generally accept requests to write e-mails for you, but we can give more general advice on how to tactfully handle the situation.
    – cag51
    Jul 15 at 6:12
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Your sister should not complain to the Gunners about their behavior. While they are not being helpful, they seem at least well-intentioned, and in any case have no obligation or responsibility to help your sister (or even to avoid unwittingly sabotaging her efforts by using the Q&A platform in a way they perceive to be consistent with its intended use). And perhaps the reason they are posting these useless answers has something to do with a grading or other sort of incentive structure (e.g., some professors will offer bonus points for online participation, and some students will go to great lengths in an attempt to impress professors they later plan to ask for letters of recommendation from, even when their behavior is actually far from impressive). If that’s the case, it seems potentially unfair — or at any rate unlikely to have much of an effect — to ask the Gunners not to behave in a way that they think benefits them, even if it doesn’t fit with your sister’s plans.

Rather, the responsibility for running the class efficiently and avoiding a situation where some students are undermining the ability of other students to make effective use of the course resources lies with the course instructors. This is who she should address her complaint to.

I’d suggest to your sister to email the instructors, politely explain the issue with the Gunners and how it is preventing her from getting the help and answers she needs, and ask for their support. This can be phrased as an explicit request for help (“please take action”, “please suggest a way I could avoid having my questions ignored”) to something more vague like “please advise” or “do you have any thoughts about this?”. The specific choice of how explicit to make the request depends on the local culture and the personalities involved, so I don’t have any recommendations.

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  • +1 for "email the instructors, politely explain the issue [...] and how it is preventing her from getting the help [...] she needs" Jul 16 at 11:48
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On piazza and edstem you can mark questions as private. I assume you must be using canvas or another platform without private questions as that is a trivial solution.

Honestly the "gunners" are just scapegoats in this situation. The instructor(s) should be monitoring the course discussion page and reading all the questions and any answers there. If they don't answer a question, then that implies that they either agree with the student answer or aren't doing their job.

You should consider also that perhaps the questions being asked aren't appropriate. The example you give for asking about links to some subscription - that sounds like something to ask a librarian, not the professor.

As for directly answering your question, you need to clearly explain why the answers they give are wrong going forward. Students are not going to want to reply if they realize it's just making them look bad.

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  • Maybe the instructors should be mailed or otherwise contacted? Instructors have to keep track of many different streams of information, maybe they have a preferred one, and this class discussion isn't it. I tell my students to mail me, as this is the only channel I track reliably. Jul 16 at 11:47

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