Tips and ideas to reduce student email volume

One of the issues experienced by faculty during a typical semester, is dealing with large volume of student emails. Many questions of course are unique and need individual attention, but many other questions can seem like questions that the student could have found out, had they for example, read the syllabus more carefully or simply asked another student. By getting mired in those types of basic or repetitive questions, quality face-to-face time with students during for example office hours, may end up reduced. If you have even better practices, or other ideas that works for you in reducing extra email, please let us know in the comments below. Below are some ideas and tips (some by other faculty) which might be helpful to you.

  • Students really appreciate course organization. A disorganized course not only results in more emails, but some students may get an unfavorable impression of the course as well. See http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1103/ERS1103W.pdf and http://www.educause.edu/studentsAndTechnologyInfographic  Course organization was covered in an earlier  Angel tip.
  • One instructor starts every course with a quiz on the syllabus — easily set up in your Angel course space, could be made repeatable until students score 100 percent — and you will see an, “extraordinary decline in the amount of emails.”
  • One instructor’s syllabus is filled with large blank spaces related to course policies and asks the class to come up with them. “Small groups present on categories and particulars, they come to a consensus.  Are those discussions eye-openers on all sides, and this strategy has not only produced great syllabus quiz results, it’s shortened the timeline for class ease and cohesion in group work and general class discussion.  I wish every time I had a picture from the front of the room as students on the first day flip through the blank pages!”
  • To encourage “questions as learning,” rather than “questions as crutch”, one instructor requires students to post a question (in a discussion forum) and respond with answers to 3 questions of others.  If and when the questions begin to seem to go off track, the instructor groups students randomly and has the group come up with one question: the group self-polices the “easy” questions.  “Students always report that this was one of the most useful things.”
  • Another way to reduce the “Q&A” email, is to put a, “Clarification Station” on the course home page. This is basically a discussion forum. “Everyone sees the question and everyone sees the answer.”  Students and the professor can subscribe to be notified in email when new posts arrive.  Students can ask questions, and also answer each other’s questions, if they know the answers.  The Clarification Station works well for questions like “does anyone know where to find the Dropbox for the short paper?”  or “is anyone having trouble getting Lesson 3 to load?” Repetitive easy questions are taken care of by students themselves (“Try the Syllabus for due dates”) which means the instructor doesn’t have to be the exasperated person all the time. The Clarification Station works well for general questions that are not about grades or individual performance. “A big advantage of doing it this way is that it helps us monitor what questions are asked most frequently, and where the problems are, information that is used for course development.   This way we have it corralled in one spot and can see emerging trends and issues, and determine easily where communications and instructions are in need of reinforcement.”
  • Use a third party tool linked from the LMS, like Piazza. Piazza is similar to an FAQ discussion forum, but has some additional elegant features you may find useful. Summary of the tool from their web site:

http://piazza.com/profs Piazza is a free platform for instructors and TAs to efficiently manage out-of-class Q&A.  “On their class dashboard, students can post questions and collaborate Wikipedia-style to edit responses to these questions. Instructors can also answer questions, endorse student answers, and edit or delete any posted content. The name Piazza comes from the Italian word for plaza–a common city square where people can come together to share knowledge and ideas. We strive to recreate that communal atmosphere among students and instructors. Piazza is an “instant social Q and A”,  a free online gathering place where students can come together to ask, answer, and explore under the guidance of their instructors. Instructors can easily answer questions, edit content, and track student participation, as well as find out which questions have the most traffic, are the most frequently discussed, and address those immediately. This tool aims to reduce the volume of emails that are asking the same question over and over, by focusing directly on the questions that matter most to students.

From the Piazza FAQ page: http://piazza.com/sandbox/tutorial2#spring2011/instructorfaq/17

Piazza saves instructors time in three ways:

1. Piazza lets you answer once.

There are always problems that multiple students run into. With staff email lists, each of those students emails you and your staff separately, meaning you have to waste time answering small variations on the same question over and over again. On Piazza, you can answer once and the whole class will be able to see it. At the same time, sensitive questions can always be made private to instructors via the private post option.

2. Piazza streamlines your workflow.

On forums and newsgroups, there is no distinct notion of a question that needs attention. (FYI…Angel by the way does have a notification feature, and also shows unread posts in bold) This means you have to sort through every updated question every time you want to help your students. On Piazza, we clearly indicate whether a question is unanswered (it’s red!) or has a lingering, unresolved issue (“unresolved follow-up”) and provide a filter you can use to look at only these questions (the Unresolved filter). Log in, answer unresolved questions, and move on.

3. Piazza encourages students to answer for you.

Students can answer questions on forums and newsgroups… but they hardly ever seem to. Piazza allows instructors to endorse student answers, which essentially tells the class, “This answer is as good as what I would have written.” You don’t have to spend time rewriting the answer, and students have a new motive to answer again. We’ve seen students answering up to 50% of questions in their class by the end of the quarter when instructors frequently endorse answers.

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About Sicco Rood

LMS admin
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