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A student often sends me emails asking obvious (homework) questions whose answers can easily be found in the teaching materials.

I do not always keep the teaching materials with me, so I cannot reply immediately to the student that, for example:

(questions whose answers are in the lecture notes)

The answer to the question can be found in p.59, Lecture Note 5

or (questions that can easily be solved using the teaching materials)

It is similar to what we did in the previous lecture. For this question, the only difference is that...

As the result, I always decided to do it later (not an urgent/important task), and sometimes forgot to reply. It often took me a few days for me to reply. It is actually fine if students ask me these types of questions during tutorial lectures as it is my duty.

As a teaching assistant, can I just ignore these emails from the student to save my time?

Thanks for all the valuable answers. I realized I made a mistake. It is clear that the answers to the questions are in the teaching materials; however, it does not mean that students will manage to answer the questions despite the fact that the answers are already in the teaching materials. It is still possible that students may not understand the proposed solutions.

I will also suggest the instructor to create a Q/A section on Moodle for students enrolling in the course in the next academic year. It may be very helpful.

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    Some more context is needed: in general, are you expected to answer emails from students, or is your work for the course supposed to be confined to tutorial lectures? Dec 11, 2022 at 7:40
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    It's not explicitly written that I have to answer their emails, but as a TA, I think we have a duty to help students (to an extent)
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 11, 2022 at 13:37
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    I wouldn't ignore the email, but send a generic reply, such as "This was covered in lecture", etc. Dec 12, 2022 at 13:37

7 Answers 7

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If it is a single student doing this, then you might try a different approach. The student has some issues/problems that you aren't recognizing and I can't diagnose. But a sit-down with this student might help them learn how to learn on their own without so many questions you tag as obvious, but they may not.

If it were many students, not one or two, then my advice would be different, but here, the student seems to be drowning and you could throw them a life jacket or (better) help them learn to swim.

I was surprised to learn that some fairly advanced undergraduates had never really learned how to learn and when things got hard had difficulties. In my case it was a failure to take notes in class, depending on memory too much. That worked for them in the past, but didn't in more advanced courses.

Because of your position as a TA you have a certain way of thinking that is effective. Others haven't reached that level yet and it is good to recognize it. Don't assume that your students are just like you. They aren't.

If you just ignore their emails, they are unlikely to make the progress that they could and which it is your responsibility to assist.

I also advise folks like yourself to give minimal hints when asked questions. You seem to already recognize this by pointing them to relevant resources. Just enough to get them past a block - or to recognize the nature of the block - is better than a full answer.

But, a sit down might give you insight into the real problem they are having, which might make it go away.

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    Perhaps in addition to doing as Buffy says, you could give the student some help on how to study. A web search on "how to study" produces a lot of information. Here's what I told my students: youtube.com/watch?v=FMD_1vOogXo
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 10, 2022 at 15:17
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    I was surprised to learn that some fairly advanced undergraduates had never really learned how to learn and when things got hard had difficulties. Sadly, it's already happening with graduate students, too. Dec 11, 2022 at 11:57
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    A sit-down session with the student is a good idea. Ask them to bring the notes they take in class.
    – Wastrel
    Dec 11, 2022 at 16:49
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Never ignore emails without first saying you are terminating the conversation. It's rude, and it leads to all sorts of problems. Even something like "come to my tutorial lectures and ask me the questions there" is more useful than no response whatsoever.

Just check out how many questions there are on Academia.SE about "no response to email" or "no answer to email". As of time of writing, there are 180 results of the former and 229 of the latter, out of 40,207 questions asked. In other words, a full ~1% of academic problems stem from people not answering emails and leaving the other person in the dark.

Don't be one of them.

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    This. Also not answering will discourage the student from asking questions, which would be devastating Dec 10, 2022 at 23:22
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    "In other words, a full ~1% of academic problems stem from people not answering emails and leaving the other person in the dark" makes the assumption that questions on academia.SE are representative of academia questions. I very much doubt this.
    – marts
    Dec 11, 2022 at 15:05
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    @marts Yeah, it's probably higher Dec 12, 2022 at 0:11
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    @marts There's probably a higher proportion that don't have the confidence to even ask their question due to some form of perceived discouragement, along the lines of having a previous question ignored, leaving it unanswered prior to asking.
    – David S
    Dec 12, 2022 at 15:27
  • Considering that 1% of more advanced academic problems are coming from whatever problem with "google scholar" or similar way about own publications/h-index/other_crap, I consider this answer enlightening (disclaimer: I totally agree with the tongue in cheek comment. from @AzorAhai-him- )
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 13, 2022 at 21:33
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Do not ignore emails, even ones that may be repetitive or ones that feature "obvious questions". It's unprofessional, may lead to problems on your side and, most importantly, may lead to some students falling behind simply because they were not attended to properly. Obviously, you're teaching adults and you don't need to babysit them, but all of us have gaps in our knowledge and any student may struggle with parts of the curriculum, guidelines or any other things that may be obvious. Ideally, you'd either spot these gaps and try to reformat your approach to curb these questions in the future or, if this is an isolated incident with one particular student having trouble, try and boost them, providing information in a simpler way or simply reiterating things. Yes, it takes time, yes, it's tiring. But you can't assume that a student is being deliberately ignorant or isn't worth your time. Such bias is unbecoming.

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I suggest not to ignore any emails from the students. You as a teacher might be finding it easier, however the student might have some problems and they are not able to find out from the teaching materials.

It will be better to sit with the student and ask them to change their approach towards doing homework so that they will understand how to use teaching material effectively and complete the homework.

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Don't ignore them.

What's obvious to you might not be obvious to others.

  • An answer that's clearly stated in the lecture notes should only necessarily be obvious to someone who's memorised (and properly mentally indexed) every word in the lecture notes. Otherwise such things can be quite easy to miss.

  • If something's a similar to what's been covered in a lecture, with a minor change:

    • they may have forgotten that part and/or didn't think to review that
    • they may not have understood it properly
    • they may not have spotted the similarity
    • they may have missed that lecture
    • they may feel overwhelmed and just don't know what to do (at which point they may be unable to think of even the most obvious thing)

If they just thought asking you is easier, that might be a reason to ignore them eventually, but it would be difficult to establish that this is the reason initially, and it may still be polite and useful to reply, even if it's just to establish that asking you questions they can easily figure out, doesn't give them easier answers.

Don't (always) just give them the answer.

Teachers shouldn't just teach the information contained in the course, but also, when necessary, help students learn how to learn and figure things out.

Sometimes just giving an answer is the best option.

Other times, this could or would stifle their ability to learn to figure it out themselves. In such cases, you may still want to point them roughly in the right direction (e.g. tell them it's in the lecture notes, even if you don't say exactly where), while leaving the door open to future questions.

This may involve a back-and-forth where you repeatedly point them in some direction or ask them a leading question, and this leads to them making some progress. There's probably a lot more to be said about that, but I'll just leave it there.

This type of teaching may not work that well over email, as you may come across as just unhelpful, in which case they may just not send you another email. I might suggest pointing them in the right direction and then, for example, inviting them to your office hours if they have further questions.

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Others have suggested that responding to the emails may be a good idea, if you have the patience or energy. I generally agree. However, here are some other pragmatic approaches to consider:

  • Hold regular office hours at a pre-announced time. When someone emails you, you can give them a short reply and politely ask them to come to the office hours.
  • Ask the instructor to set up a Campuswire or a Piazza forum. This will let the students post their questions on the forum, and often, there will be other enthusiastic students who will help you answer them.
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    I used a simple mail list to which all were subscribed in the same way you describe in your second bullet. All were encouraged to ask and answer questions. I only needed to step in when there were errors. Such things need some rules, however, such as not posting answers to exercises. I had to read all posts, of course so the scale needs to be reasonable.
    – Buffy
    Dec 13, 2022 at 16:41
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It would be unprofessional to simply ignore the student's emails unless you're absolutely sure you can't reply without coming across as arrogant, condescending and unprofessional. Keep in mind as a TA the answer may be obvious to you but a student's role is one of learning so it isn't always going to be obvious to them. A teacher's role is to guide the student. Answer the question (no matter how stupid you think it is) but also let them know where they can find the answers in the future and point them in the direction of tools they can use to help them succeed not only in class but also in life.

Don't simply say "Answers are in the lecture notes" or "The answer to the question can be found in p.59, Lecture Note 5" or "These questions can easily be solved using the teaching materials" or "It is similar to what we did in the previous lecture." It's very blunt, comes across as condescending and implies that you think the student is an idiot and you consider yourself a superior being.

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