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Teaching Students to Use Email Professionally

Have you ever received the following from a student? 

student321: <>            12:01am              

i dont understand question 3 can you explain

No name, non-school email address, no class identifying information. For the first few years of my teaching career, these types of emails seemed inevitable.

Then I managed to significantly curtail the confusion by instituting a few basic rules:  

  1. A school email address must be used for all communication.

Due to FERPA concerns, many schools mandate that all instructor-student communication goes through official school email addresses. When an email comes in from an outside address I responded with a short, pre-populated comment: “Due to FERPA regulations, I cannot answer questions sent from non-school email addresses. Please email me from your assigned school email account.”

  1. Course name and time must be included in the subject line.

When teaching multiple sections of the same course on the same day it can be frustrating to dig through rosters to find the class to which the student belongs. For small classes, this rule can be relaxed but when working with 200+ students it is a time saver. When students did not include this information, I respond with “So I can best answer your question can you please tell me which class of mine you are attending?”

  1. Full Names must be included in the email somewhere.

One year I had six students across three classes with the same first name. Needless to say, without a last name I had no idea which student I was communicating with via email. If a student is using a school email address you can often figure out to whom you are responding, baring that I email back asking for the last name “Hi, so I can look up the correct information, what is your last name?”

  1. Always have a backup plan.

As a rule, any properly labeled and signed email message sent to me will be responded to within a reasonable time frame typically within 24 hours and most often with 2-3. However, I advise my students that it is unwise to send me an email message late at night when the question needs to be answered the following morning. I encourage my students to plan ahead when possible and to have back up plan when they are doing their work last minute.

To ensure everyone knew the rules I included them in my syllabus and on a page in my LMS.  I also made sure to review them briefly in class and I included an Inside Higher Ed link that outlined the best practices and rules my students should follow when corresponding with their instructor.

In addition to modeling appropriate student email correspondence, there also is the organizational aspect of keeping track of all your student email exchanges.  Keeping track of who sent what when can also be timing consuming.

There are several strategies that can be used:

  1. Set up folders in your email client.

You can set up folders for each course name “College Algebra”; “Statistics”; etc. Within each of these folders, you can further organize emails by year and/or term. You can even further subdivide the semester folder into course meeting times for clarity.

  1. Use email filtering.

The sheer volume of emails sent to instructors is staggering. Try automating some of your messages by using an email filter to send messages automatically to an appropriate folder. This will remove some of the manual organizational work and allow you to check messages in bulk during specific times during the day.

  1. Archive and Delete.

Emails are records so most people are loath to delete, but you can archive! General school emails, event emails, etc. can be deleted as needed. To clear up space go ahead and archive anything older than a year in folders that you do not actively use.

And finally, the most important tip I can give you: Take time away from email.  With the ubiquity of screens in our lives, email is ever present.  Each semester I give my students time frames for quick responses, and blackout times when they would likely have to wait until the next day for a response. Most emails can wait a few hours and burning yourself out by being “available” at all hours of the day does a disservice to both you and your students.

About the Author

Suzanne Galayda has taught mathematics for over fifteen years with a focus on developmental and first year mathematics courses.   Her areas of interest are ED-Tech, technology in the classroom, and AR/VR in education.  She has been using McGraw-Hill’s CONNECT and ALEKS platforms in hybrid mathematics classrooms for the past several years.  Most recently, she worked on ASU’s OLC award winning redesign of College Algebra using ALEKS.   She also contributes to the McGraw-Hill Math-Tips Newsletter.

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