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I started teaching this year and what surprises me is how often students will just send you emails asking about stuff that I feel they should figure out by themselves.

For instance, they will email me asking when the next lecture is (when they can simply look it up) or if they will get penalised if they submit an assignment late or even not at all! (why would they not!)

Then, they also email me puzzling "academic" questions. For instance, I encourage my students to be autonomous and use google or search answers on websites like stackexchange. But some will email me (in the context of a statistical class) how to use the "google regression", or the "google R library", stuff you just wonder how they got there. Stuff directly from the meta-metaverse.

How do you deal with such questions?

(Giving this issue my assignments have very clear guidelines and clear marking.)

My philosophy at this point is that they should figure these sort of things out by themselves, and I tend not to respond. I feel that answering this is encouraging them not to be autonomous.

Is that a common teaching issue? Do you explicitly tell your students in class that they should not email you about this kind of stuff? What is acceptable not to reply to?

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    Removed several answers and side discussions from the comments here; please post your answers an answers.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 19 at 15:48
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    Imagine a complete absence of answers below because all readers believed that you should be figuring this sort of thing out by yourself.
    – kjhughes
    Jan 19 at 17:42
  • I had a professor who would turn us in if we used Google or a book for ANYTHING in his class. We were to use his materials only. Just some food for thought. Jan 21 at 15:38

11 Answers 11

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This will depend on the culture of your department. In my department, the "student experience" carries a lot of weight (for various reasons which are beyond the scope of this question). When students provide course evaluations how responsive we are to questions is a key factor.

I try to be helpful without committing too much of my time. If it's something they should know where to look up I email them a link to the appropriate place to find the information ("You can find your timetable by checking the University timetabling website: https://xy.z"). Many students are not very organised and don't know where to find things, even if they should. I keep links to common resources to hand so I don't need to waste time finding them myself.

If a student was doing some of their own research on a related topic to what I'm teaching I would try to be as encouraging as possible without committing too much of my time, but making clear that it is beyond the scope of the module. If they were very keen I might even try to recruit them onto a research project.

It's a tricky balance but I don't think ignoring the emails is the best way forward in most cases. I have noticed (as have many of my colleagues) that some students use email in the same way as they text their friends, so a short message pinged over to you without thinking about it too much. If this is the case for your students it would be worth discussing with them communication expectations in a professional environment. In many cases, they genuinely don't know how. If a student seems to be taking advantage of your time you should discuss this with them so they understand boundaries and what is expected of them.

As frustrating as communication with some students is I try to remind myself that they are young (especially undergraduates) and it's our job to teach them. That includes soft skills like how to communicate, etc.

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    Agreed. You don't even have to give them a link for the simplest things. "Please check your student portal for that information." But don't ignore. Jan 18 at 12:03
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    Building on the point in the fourth paragraph about students using email like an instant messenger service; it may be (especially since the pandemic) that there is a platform like Microsoft Teams or Slack which is already well-suited to 'instant' messages, and which also facilitates students asking trivial questions in a space where other students can answer. Encourage them to ask things like "when is the next lecture?" in an open board and most likely someone else will answer for you. This lets you emphasise that emailed questions should be written more seriously.
    – dbmag9
    Jan 18 at 21:15
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    Over the years I have been used to professors not replying to emails. I think it’s pretty normal in Europe. I come from continental Europe, studied in France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the students experience is not a thing like in American universities. I think you right that students seems to use it like text messages, but I think it can be pretty rude. There is also a consumerist expectation from education, especially from US students, which doesn’t bode well in Europe.
    – giac
    Jan 18 at 21:19
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    Honestly I recommend leaving out the link, when it's something that students already have easy access to. This is based on the number of people who navigate to websites by putting the name of the website into Google and then clicking the top link (sometimes including me). If e-mailing you and clicking the link in your response is easier than going to the university home page and clicking on the link then students will do that, regardless of how annoyed the text around the link is. (You don't have to be mean about it, but mailing you has to be slightly more work than the behavior you want.) Jan 18 at 22:44
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    @giac But since not answering is not an exception in those countries, the student will simply assume that you lacked time to answer, or just forgot to. Whereas, with Luke Sawczak suggestion the student will most likely understand that it is not your work to answer such questions.
    – Johan
    Jan 19 at 12:39
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In Sweden, where I teach, there is a formal obligation on teachers to answer student queries within no more than three work days, even if the answer is trivial. The answer can of course be "you'll need to figure this out on your own" or "check the syllabus", but you can't silently ignore the question entirely. While this may not be a formal rule in your department or country, I suspect that there is at least an inofficial policy in your department as well. To be honest, I have a hard time envisioning a teaching environment where silently ignoring student questions would be considered ok.

Try to see this from a student's perspective - not only do they not get their question answered, they also get no signal about why their question is not being answered. This way, they do not learn what are good questions to ask (although they may learn not to ask questions at all, since it's pointless - you may know that you would have been happy to answer a more intricate academic question, but how is the student to know that?).

I should also say that handling things this way isn't even particularly smart from your perspective. You may save a few seconds by not pointing a student towards the syllabus, but you miss out on the opportunity to educate the student how to ask better questions, which may save you a lot more time (and nerves) in the future.

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    That is interesting. I studied in a few countries and professors not replying to emails always seemed fairly normal (both at undergrad and even PhD level).
    – giac
    Jan 18 at 14:39
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    In the UK just completely ignoring emails from undergraduate students is quite common amongst older academics (although not all of them by any means).
    – Tom
    Jan 18 at 20:01
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    @Tom Let me put it like this. I don't doubt that people do this, and the department probably is in fact not very happy about it - but the truth of the matter is also that starting from a certain seniority it can be very difficult to change professor's behavior. That's not the same as "this is ok, people should be doing it".
    – xLeitix
    Jan 20 at 9:25
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You shouldn't ignore them without telling them which questions you will or will not answer. That is rude and makes it hard to understand when to reach out to you in general, which is not what you want.

I see two ways to address this, one of them already answered nicely by atom44, simple quick emails.

The other one is, at the beginning of the new lecture series, to spend a few minutes clearly talking about communicating with you. You can address the topics that they can ask about, and also the the way that they can approach you and how to approach you properly. You can set clear guidelines, for example:

For any questions on class schedules or homework assignments and grades, the answer should be in the syllabus. Questions like "when is the next lecture?" or "how is this graded?" will be ignored.
etc.
When you contact me, make it an appropriate message with proper greeting and closing.

So make it clear when they can expect an answer, and when they cannot. And of course, also put these communication guidelines in the syllabus.

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    @OP: If you write these things in the syllabus, you can be 99% sure these students will not read the syllabus, but you will be able to answer almost by default "please look for the answer to your question(s) in the syllabus" :)
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 20 at 15:03
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Yes, you need to answer student questions, directly or indirectly. But you also need to make it easy to do so if the scale is large. I have two suggestions.

First, use what you have learned about student requests to update your syllabus with all generally needed information. I'll guess your needs improvement if you are getting questions that could be easily answered. You can even include something about how and when to contact you.

Second, use a mailer that makes some things easy. Most mailers will automatically add a "signature" block at the end of any mail. Some (Mail on the Mac, for example) lets you have a large number of different signature blocks that you can easily choose from a drop-down. Write signature blocks that begin with distinct boilerplate suggestions.

See the syllabus, please.
Professor Buffy
University of the Universe ...

Or

See me during Office hours (details in Syllabus)
Professor Buffy
University of the Universe ...

Then, when a question requires a boiler plate answer, just select the "signature" that gives the answer.

I have about thirty different signatures.


A third suggestion, assuming that you also have a large scale but a number of TAs to assist in the course. Let each TA field questions from a defined subset of the students. In some places this assignment of student to specific TA is already in place so just capitalize on that. "Contact your TA first" is a general rule stated in the syllabus. The TAs can answer a lot of such questions and relay the harder (hopefully rarer) ones to you.

You might even have access to a Senior TA who has a lot of experience who can serve as intermediary between the other TAs and yourself.

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  • Interesting thanks. But do you still do that when you have 200 students?
    – giac
    Jan 18 at 15:20
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    Scale is hard. First try to minimize the problem via the syllabus. I'll add a bit more to the answer.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 15:27
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    There is also sometimes a similar feature called "canned responses". Jan 18 at 20:12
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My own experience is that students, at the moment, are as "needy" as I've seen them.

In recent times, in the US, at least, the "ground rules" have been changing frequently because of covid, and I personally think this has left the students relatively unsure about many things, and it's led to many questions of a type that I haven't seen before. I deal mostly with seniors, but I'm hearing from my colleagues that 2nd year students have never really learned to function as college students!

So where does that leave us? I've chosen to double my efforts to be as clear as I can in advance -- better syllabus, better directions in class, better organization of the course structure in the learning management system.... You might ask yourself if there's anything you can do better to make things even clearer to your students. If you have TA's, maybe you can work to make them the first point of contact for students, and they can either answer the questions if they know the answers, or assemble the questions for you to answer.

Also, I've really tried to encourage students to ask questions in discussion forums in the learning management system (they're encouraged to email directly for issues involving personal issues), and to follow the discussion forums. This allows me to allocate portions of my time to dealing with these issues in a way that doesn't constantly intrude into my time, usually in the evenings before I call it a day. Also, if one student has a question, chances are that somebody has the same question, and can benefit from an answer in a discussion forum before they can get around to emailing me. Often, when I get a question by email, my response is "can you ask that in the discussion forum?"

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If it's a frivolous question but only requires a simple answer, like a link to the syllabus, I would provide it and move on. If it requires more than that and I don't have the time to address it fully or have other concerns, e.g., about their preparedness for the class, I might respond with a suggestion they come to office hours, at which point there's a good chance they'll decide that also requires effort they're not willing to put in and that may be the end of it. If they do show up, that opens up the possibility for a deeper discussion of why they're having trouble with what seem like simple matters and what might be done about it.

You can also set rules, e.g., edicting that students in a CS class should not send you their code via email with questions about how to fix their bugs, that you will only accept those questions in OH. Another good strategy is to use something like Piazza, so students can answer each other's questions without having to ask the instructor.

I agree that even seemingly frivolous questions should get timely, respectful, and helpful responses.

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Welcome to being an instructor :)

What is colloquially known as "frivolous" or even "dumb" is merely a typical human pathfinding strategy: your students evidently believe it is the easiest to get answers from you. Odds are your assignments' guidelines are "very clear" only to you, possibly "clear" to the faculty and might not be clear at all to your students. Perhaps if you expressed the syllabus in a form of TikTok dance, it would get better traction.

Jokes aside, maybe your university/department's website is hard to navigate. Maybe they got thrown off by unclear wording in some announcement which might have had nothing to do with your course specifically. Maybe the alternative would be a phone call and they tried to circumvent that dreaded source of knowledge.

Do not take (almost) anything for granted. Seeking information is a skill, and great many people might fall into an "utterly lacking that skill" category for you. Interpersonal communication is a skill. Being consistently able to comply with well-articulated requests is a skill.

You are seen as approachable - this is good; that gives you a teaching opportunity. Now, not all questions are being asked in good faith: some are obviously probing you for weakness ("maybe we could avoid doing some assignments, this teacher looks young, inexperienced and exploitable"), some try to offload minor work onto you.

I find grouping requests together the easiest: someone is uncertain about the time of the next lecture? Send an email with the link to the website with relevant information to an entire mailing list and say that unless there are concerns about its validity - which then should be stated explicitly - students should just use that. Students start to bombard you with questions about grading and assignments? Take extra five minutes at the start of the next lecture addressing these concerns.

Absolutely do try to address each and every email. But if you can do that, having a policy enabling you to not do so individually and potentially postpone some answers to the next class helps a lot: similar to SE, making the answer visible to a larger group of people can often be beneficial, after all.

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    "What is colloquially known as "frivolous" or even "dumb" is merely a typical human pathfinding strategy:" Ugh. You see that on the more technical StackExchanges too. Some questions are asked as if they did not spend 5 second Googling it first.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 18 at 21:31
  • @DKNguyen It irks me a lot as well but well, apparently it's easier for some people to just type in their question than sit down and think for a moment. Unfortunately, there is a cultural aspect as well: if "show your effort" is prized over "get the result, ideally on your own" (and many schools foster exactly that), well, people get conditioned. And I've actually started just folding the conversation once a person follows up their first question with another one in the same thread if it's evident basically zero independent work was done.
    – Lodinn
    Jan 19 at 21:21
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I would like to deviate a bit from the other answers here. Although the answers and especially the accepted one are good, there is a clear problem in answering students emails: workload and time consumption.

Assuming, as everyone says here, instructors must answer students emails, then the higher education system is simply broken:

  • If in a 200 students class, even only 10% of students sends you emails, every week, with back and forth emails. This can lead to about 50 emails per week for each course. So at each working day the professor or instructor needs to answer more than 10 emails, some of them complicated (I have experience with this), because they describe complicated scenarios relating to the course material. This amounts to more than two hours per day for answering emails, for each course you teach. This is clearly impossible, since then you cannot teach, supervise students, take part in committees, and definitely cannot do research and publish, or even think consistently.

  • This also means that professors/instructors today are much worse off than their peers 25 years ago, where no emails were available. Did any of us academics got the memo telling us that our workload has now increased 5-folds? I don't think so.

Solution: This is my suggestion, and it is the usual legal/contractual practice: when students send email simply answer:

Please visit my office hours.

Indeed, office hours were introduced precisely to put a limit on student-teacher interaction to make the workload tenable.

Comment: Of course, sometimes you can answer emails if the class is very small, or in special circumstances, but don't make it the standard, unless your department demands this. If you are in such a department, then it is probably reasonable to say that your institute is more of a teaching one than research (unless you have lots of TA's doing this work for you, which is reasonable).

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I think it is a good idea to define different mediums for communication to address different needs. Especially, if the students are not on campus and cannot resolve whatever questions they have in a face-to-face chat in the group. Everything falls to an email and you get swamped with frivolous questions.

My solution is to establish a course Discord (or whatever chat tool students are the most used to) server. Let the students resolve trivial stuff among themselves. Chances are that multiple students have the same question and if all communication is visible, they may find their answer without even asking. I monitor the discussions to see what's going on and answer relevant questions myself.

Importantly, if students are not using their real names on Discord their questions can be rude and entitled towards teachers. I find it important to react and set boundaries for what's acceptable. That is a teachable moment for everyone.

Email is reserved for private and serious stuff. Let them know that they should not expect answers outside business hours and on weekends. I am also very strict on not answering any messages outside the announced channels.

Furthermore, in the introductory lecture where you introduce assignments give them an example of how you expect them to approach the task. Sometimes students are used to the system where assignment contains all formulas, etc. and they just have to plug the numbers in. They are used to being evaluated on finding the correct answer.

Let them know how the assignment descriptions are complete and it is their job to find the missing pieces. At uni level, students are often evaluated for how they have solved the problem, not what answer they got.

I think it is futile to complain and expect students to come with perfect information-finding skills, interpersonal skills, etc. that perfectly match your expectations. Frankly, old professors are the worst at these skills.

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Assume good faith with 'obvious' questions. Maybe the student has some difficulty logging into the Student Portal to find class times and they've already raised a support ticket for it. Maybe there was some misleading information on there the previous year and they want to be sure. Maybe there's some rumour floating around about rescheduling.

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So… apparently no one answering thinks this is a teaching opportunity.

If you’re tech support and you get ‘my PC crashed” questions the answer is always ‘did you troubleshoot?’…

“What have you tried so far?”

Someone who asks when the next lecture is, assuming it’s the same day and time each week should get ‘I recall you were at the last lecture.” or “How many have you missed?”.

Treat them like a telemarketer and make their time-cost high.

You could reply with a form letter containing a long story about self-reliance or perhaps reply with ‘Would you like an extra credit assignment instead?” Yes? Here’s a list of books about self-reliance. Read one and create a video, around ten minutes, summarizing the main points.”

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