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

April 20, 2021 | Claudia Stanny

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

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 email 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?

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 other sources (e.g., a disciplinary email list, specific collaborators for a scholarly project, members of a committee on which you serve). Isolate these messages in a folder with a filter and read them when you have time.

Clearly tell students how quickly they can expect a reply to email. You need not respond immediately, but you should respond promptly to messages from your students. Clearly communicate how quickly you respond to email to your students. Students might be accustomed to instant replies from their friends, but you are entitled to set reasonable boundaries. Try to respond within a reasonable period of time (24-48 hours). Describe response times to email on your syllabus and in your Canvas course information. Consider creating a custom signature block for student email that includes a short statement about response times. Plan to communicate this message more than once, e.g., repeat near assignment deadlines and test administrations, when students are most likely to have questions.

Encourage students to use the email function in Canvas. This strategy will help keep class-related emails out of your work inbox and minimize lost messages. Alternatively, encourage students to ask questions in an “Office Hours” discussion thread. If multiple students ask the same question via email, post the question and your response in this discussion thread to encourage students to monitor this thread.

Set up a filter in your email account 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 AMH2020 in the subject line goes to your AMH2020 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-savvy 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.

04/20/2021 gb