Tips for managing email from students: How to be responsive and maintain your sanity

March 18, 2014

Students are more likely to interact with instructors outside of class by sending an email than by visiting an instructor during office hours. Prompt responses to student emails create a sense of “connectedness” between students and faculty, contribute to the quality of engagement with the course, and can indirectly improve student learning and retention.

We all appreciate prompt responses to our email messages. But with a huge volume of mail in our queue, how can we respond effectively to student email messages and protect our time for other important activities?

Respond promptly to messages from your students. You need not respond immediately. Try to respond within a reasonable period of time (24-48 hours).

Tell your students how quickly they can expect a response on the first day of class and in your syllabus. Honor this promise. They might expect prompter responses from their friends, but you can and should set reasonable expectations and limits on how quickly students can expect you to respond. Communicate email policies clearly. Plan to communicate them more than once, e.g., repeat them near assignment deadlines and test administrations.

Set up a filter in email to direct mail from students to a designated folder. A good filter prevents messages from getting lost in your email queue.

Identify a key phrase (best to pick one that is easy for students to remember) that you used when you set up your filter. For example, if you set up a filter so that all mail with EXP4407 in the subject line goes to your EXP4407 class folder, students must always include this in their subject line or risk having their message buried and neglected. Tell your students what they must include in the subject line to ensure their message is filtered properly. As tech-savy as we think our students might be, they might be unaware of filters for email and the need to put a key word in the subject line to ensure their message is directed properly. Consider this a “teachable moment” for practical real-world communication skills.

Use this strategy to sort your email from other key sources. You can filter emails from your department chair or a colleague you collaborate with on a research project by filtering mail based on their email address.

Remind students to sign the email with their full name. Student accounts and private email addresses are cryptic. As with strategic use of the subject line, full identification of the sender is an email skill that students might still be learning.

Identify a time when you will respond to student email. If you think about responses to student email as a replacement for conversations during office hours, consider setting aside a designated time when you respond to email from students. De-clutter your inbox by creating a filter for student messages, which you can then locate, read, and respond to during your designated time. This strategy also works well for managing the flow of messages from a topical listserve. Isolate these messages in a folder with a filter and read them when you have time.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf