I maintain an email group for my class where the reading list and other course materials are made available to the students. Despite sharing all relevant information with them, I still have students asking me exact page numbers and sections from the book, and whether 'Topic X or Y will be on the exam'. I am fed up! Am I obliged to entertain these queries? They usually ask these queries on email or typically on sms.

This is a second-year undergraduate class (about 50 students) majoring in economics. I teach them a statistics course. I've included a link to the syllabus (page 2 of linked document).

Link to syllabus

  • Could you provide more information about the class? For instance, who are the students taking the class, are they undergrads in their first year or fourth year? Is the class size very large? Are they asking you in class, or by sending you e-mails? – I Like to Code Oct 8 '17 at 13:12
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    "Obliged" by what? General academic ethics? Local norms? Your boss's expectations? The need to get positive student evaluations? – Nate Eldredge Oct 8 '17 at 13:47
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    SMS? Did you give out your private cell phone number? – henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 8 '17 at 14:30
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    @henning Yes. This might sound unworldly, but it is quite the done thing in colleges in India. Teachers don't have office space, hence I can't provide them with any 'office number'. – PGupta Oct 8 '17 at 14:34
  • I see. That's quite a disadvantage! – henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 8 '17 at 14:49

Whether or not you're obliged is debatable, but here is what you can do to reduce the time that's consumed by answering redundant emails:

Have your students write all questions into an online forum that's accessible for every participant of your course.* Post your answers there as well.

You can "pin" answers that are of a general nature. Your first pinned message should be a FAQ, entitled "Frequently asked questions. Read first before posting" and with the first line reading something like:

Before posting a question, please make sure that it has not already been answered. In particular, check the pinned messages first. Chances are, your question has been answered and you can save yourself and me some work.

If you get a duplicate question, just refer the student to the relevant message. This should work as a gentle nudge that deters other students form asking redundant questions in the future (remember that the answer can be read by the whole course).

* and only them.

  • That's a great suggestion. I'll definitely try it out in my classes from now on. – PGupta Oct 8 '17 at 15:03
  • henning, do you have any particular software to recommend for such a forum? – aparente001 Oct 9 '17 at 4:16
  • @aparente001 my university uses Moodle, which is useful for this (and a few other things). – henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 9 '17 at 6:18
  • A lot of engineering schools use Piazza to great success. – Alex K Sep 6 '18 at 19:18

In general, you're not obligated to answer any questions. You might tick off your students and eventually your coworkers and department heads (if they get enough complaints), but it's highly unlikely that not answering questions will be job threatening or otherwise result in official reprimand.

There are two reasons to answer questions:

  1. You want to.
  2. You think it would be rude or disrespectful not to.

Something that could be listed as a third reason but in my mind falls under 2. would be.

  1. You think not doing so would adversely affect the learning of students

Clearly you're frustrated with your students for not figuring out the answer themselves. This is a very common situation to be in, and not only with regards to reading the syllabus. One major part of deciding how you want to teach is deciding where the line is for questions. Some professors carte blanche refuse to answer any questions whose answers are in the syllabus. Some professors will answer "what are we reading tomorrow" ten times in a class period.

Annoying as it may be, answering questions vs replying "it's contained in the syllabus" will be part of what your students use to judge how nice they think you are, how approachable they think you are, and similar subjective qualities. You need to figure out how you wish to relate to your students and how many trivial questions you want to indulge for yourself, because the answer is different for every person.

  • It is quite annoying that I am supposed to devote time answering mundane questions just because students didn't put in any effort reading the syllabus. I almost never say no to answering conceptual doubts. But I expect students to read and understand basic English written in the syllabus. What are they doing in college if they can't match the material given in the textbook to the page numbers mentioned in the syllabus?! I truly am frustrated. – PGupta Oct 8 '17 at 14:25
  • @Teacher123 You're obviously quite upset about this, with answers the question on its own. It's not worth answering the questions if it's going to bring you distress. – Stella Biderman Oct 8 '17 at 14:52

First, the students' decision to ask you questions directly makes sense if you consider their decision from their perspective. As a student, would you rather spend 30 seconds asking the lecturer a question directly; or spend 10 minutes to read through the syllabus carefully to find the answer to the question himself/herself? By asking you questions directly, the students are merely minimizing their effort in order to get the information that they require.

You should consider whether the syllabus is well-organized and clearly written. If the syllabus is long and rambling, it is understandable why the students prefer not to read it. As a teacher, I believe that it is your responsibility to spend a reasonable effort to organize course related information so that it is easy for a student to understand.

I'm currently teaching a course with more than 600 students. We seldom receive e-mail inquiries from students. I believe the reason for this is that I spent quite a bit of time thinking through how to structure our course webpage so that it is easy for students to find the information they need.

  • We have a master page which contains links to the pages on specific topics.
  • We have a webpage which contains information about the textbook for the course. This webpage contains a table which indicates which chapter and which pages of the textbook to read for each lecture.
  • We have a webpage which contains information about the quizzes. This webpage explains clearly which lectures are tested for each quiz.

Finally, I would not answer any questions if the answers are clearly written in a document which has been given to the students. For example, if you have a short webpage or document which contains all the information relevant say to Quiz 1, and students ask you questions about Quiz 1, I would just tell the students, "Please read the Quiz 1 document carefully for the answer to your question."

  • The reading list for the course in question is a one-page document with chapter numbers and page numbers clearly mentioned against each unit. I have given the students two units on the test, details of which are provided in the reading list made available to them. I have edited my original question to include the document I am talking about. I would not consider it unwieldy or difficult to understand. – PGupta Oct 8 '17 at 15:18

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