5 Strategies for Reducing Student Email

December 11, 2014

Today’s A Month of Favorites topic is five most useful digital lifehacks, so I’m going to talk about something that has made my digital life easier: reducing the number of emails I get from students.

Email, email, email

Student emails can’t be avoided, but the problem with most student emails is that they tend to be thoughtless and rushed, which winds up making more work for me in the end. I don’t like doing extra work. Like, at all. So here are some things I’ve done so that I spend less time answering student emails and more time doing, well, anything else.

1. I teach effective email strategies on the first day of class.

As I mentioned, student emails tend to be thoughtless and rushed–even more so now that a lot of them send emails from their phones and treat emails like text messages. So on the first day, I review audience and purpose with my students, especially as it relates to email. I remind them that they usually want their professors to take them seriously, so it’s important that they send respectful emails that make it seem like they actually care. We go over subject lines and signing emails and making sure to use correct grammar and spelling.

I also make sure my students know that I do not check my email at all hours of the day. I explain that I do not check email on my phone, and that, for me, email lives in the computer, and I do have a life outside of work. (This helps for the students who expect an instantaneous response.)

I forgot to do it this semester, but next semester I am also going to go over problem solving (i.e., don’t email me with a problem; email me with a possible solution to the problem.) I figure that will eliminate some back and forth as well.

2. I refer students to the syllabus.

I do this constantly. CONSTANTLY. This requires some front-loading, but it’s totally worth it. Any questions/situations that repeatedly come up go in the syllabus. In class, when students ask me a question that’s answered in the syllabus, I say, “It’s in the syllabus” or “What does the syllabus say?” That trains the students to look there first before asking me, which in turn cuts down on how many students email me to ask questions that are answered there.

Also, when students email me with questions answered in the syllabus, I reply with “It’s in the syllabus” or “See the syllabus.” It has the same effect.

3. I write detailed and comprehensive assignment sheets.

Just like with a good syllabus, a good assignment sheet can eliminate unnecessary emails. If someone asks a question about an assignment, I tell them to check the assignment sheet.

Here’s what happens when I do #2 and #3: students email me only AFTER they have checked both (and tell me they have checked!). A lot of students think it’s easier to email than to investigate on their own except it’s really not. It’s a lot faster for them to refer to the material first to see if the answer is there–especially since they have to wait on a response from me.

4. I changed my late work policy.

I used to have a strict no late work policy, which actually worked pretty well when I was working as an adjunct. However, once I went full time, I kept getting emails from students with all of their sob stories (some valid–I’m not making fun) or their begging, and it all just became too much. After reading this post over on Bedford Bits, I completely changed the way I accept work. I pretty much adopted Traci’s policy except I have a late homework policy and a late essay/major assignment policy. Mine reads:

Late Homework Policy: Assignments are due on time. However, I will leave assignments (except essays and revisions) open in Canvas [the LMS my school uses] until I begin to grade them. At that time, I will close the assignments with no warning, and you will not be allowed to submit.

Late Essay Policy: Essays and revisions (except for essays due the last week of class) will be subject to a due date, grace period, and deadline policy.

  • A due date is the day that your assignment is due. Every student has a one-week grace period after the due date during which the assignment can still be submitted.
  • The grace period occurs between the due date and the deadline. Work submitted during the grace period will be marked as late in Canvas. There is no grade penalty for work submitted during the grace period; however, we will not work on the assignment in class after the due date nor will I provide feedback on your work in progress after the due date.
  • A deadline comes one week after the due date and is the final day that an essay will be accepted. After the deadline, Canvas closes the assignment, and you will no longer be able to submit your work. You will receive a zero for any work that is not submitted by the deadline. There are no extensions on deadlines.

That has worked out surprisingly well. Most students turn their work in on time, and those who don’t have zero reason to email me about it. They don’t have to beg; they don’t have to explain.

For the homework, some students say they are more likely to get their assignments on time because they don’t want to get locked out of an assignment. I don’t know why that works better than a hard deadline, but it does, so I just go with it. It does freak a lot of them out that there is no penalty for late essays whether they use the grace period or not, but it’s one less thing for me to worry about, and I love it.

5. I send emails to the class listserv/post announcements in the LMS.

If I get emails from two or more students asking the same question (that is not in the syllabus/on the assignment sheet, of course), I send a clarification email or post an announcement to the entire class. That way, I preempt repeat emails from other students. This seems like an obvious one, but sometimes I answer two or three and then realize what I’m doing. I also make a note of the question so that I can make sure future syllabi/assignment sheets are clear on whatever the question refers to.

Again, all of these strategies take more work on the front end, but I find them 100% worth doing so I’m not depressed every time I log onto my computer and see a bazillion unnecessary emails from students. There are some days when I don’t have any emails from students at all, and that definitely was not the case before I started implementing these strategies. Anybody have other strategies that they use to curb their emails? I’d love to hear about them.

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  1. Wesley at Library Educated

    My friend just taught her first college class and said that she should have just recorded herself saying “Did you check the syllabus? It’s in the syllabus.Syllllllllabus.”

  2. Andi Miller (@estellasrevenge)

    These are amazing tips! Some I’ve already put into practice (see the syllabus), but I do love your late work policy. Might have to try that!

  3. travelingwitht

    So Organized! I love it! Thanks for linking up to #amonthoffaves!

  4. Bellezza

    Wow, this makes me extra glad my students are third graders. I couldn’t possibly manage the amount of emails you must get; although I do receive a fair share from the parents.

  5. monikalovelybookshelf

    I teach private music lessons so I don’t have a set syllabus and the student/teacher relationship isn’t terribly formal, but I can still think of ways to use some of your strategies. Great list!


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