Wild guess: you didn’t become an educator because you love writing emails. Yet one study suggests professors spend at least 13% of their time responding to student emails—and that doesn’t take into account the inbox context-switching you have to do, moving between your roles as educator, administrator, and researcher. For better or worse, email has become our universal standard of communication—and with many professors balancing multiple classes of hundreds of students each (many of whom, despite reminders, forget to include their class or section number), that email treadmill can be endless and maddening. Ultimately, you want to give your students the information they need, clearly and concisely, without losing your mind in the process.
It’s not you, it’s email
According to the Association for Psychological Science, three key factors contribute to communication difficulties in emails:
- Asynchrony: Email doesn’t benefit from the mitigating factors of non-verbal cues and tone regulation that contribute to more respectful, measured face-to-face interactions. As behavioural management expert David Swink writes in Psychology Today, we miss out on valuable physical and psychological “location” cues when we correspond by email. “When you are co-located, you are more likely to recognize and respond to the psychological climate of the person as compared to when you can’t see or hear them.”
- Depersonalization: We are more likely to disregard social norms when engaging with a screen rather than another individual.
- Immediacy: We’ve become accustomed to tossing off emails rapidly and without much thought, leading many messages to be sent in the heat of the moment (which then read as especially urgent, demanding, or aggressive).
Simply being aware of these factors may help you respond with more patience, but short of banning all email (as this one professor did), it may be helpful to implement policies to encourage better email practices.
Email best practices: by professors, for professors
- Consider using the syllabus to outline your email policies, including the hours you’re available to respond to email (i.e. not after 6PM or not on weekends) or topics that are appropriate for email discussion versus what should be held for class or office hours.
- When you can, convey information plainly and succinctly, rather than scolding students for asking. As one professor put it, “I might have received a hundred of these emails, but I try to assume the student has only ever sent this one. That often keeps me from responding from a place of annoyance or anger.”
- Think of every email as an opportunity for student learning.
- One professor suggests including an email template in your syllabus—one that states how you prefer to be addressed, and where students should include the information about their class or section—to help students understand how best to obtain a prompt response.
- Try a digital space—like Slack or Piazza—where students can ask each other questions publicly, and encourage students to check the forum before sending an email (since many questions tend to be similar).
- For frequent, repeated asks, such as grade requests or recommendation letters, consider a Google form with standardized fields the student can fill out to easily obtain necessary information and avoid a lengthy email back-and-forth.
A blurb a day: Educator email templates
It’s not a magic wand, but creating email templates to respond to the most commonly-asked student questions can help alleviate the communication bottleneck. The examples below are a good starting place, but Unicycle has also built in blurbs to our beta email client, so your common responses are always at your fingertips. Want to give it a try? Request early access here.
Email: “My friend got her grades, so why haven’t I received mine yet?”
Response: Grade anxiety is real, but you don’t need to capitulate to these requests: simply state the date by which all grades will be released. It may help if you release all grades at once, rather than as you enter them or as TAs complete assignments.
“All grades will be announced on X date. If you haven’t received your grade by that date, feel free to reach out to me or to your TA.”
Email: “You weren’t in your office when I stopped by!”
Response: Try an app that allows students to view your schedule and easily book meetings, like Calendly or YouBookMe.
“My office hours are clearly indicated on the syllabus. If you would like to book a one-on-one meeting, you can do so here.”
Email: “I’m 1 point away from an A-, and I worked really hard in the course. Can you bump up my grade ?”
Response: Use empathy, but be firm. Be clear that the grade the student received reflects their performance. Consider adding a line or two to the syllabus about not accepting requests for extra credit that you can refer back to when these demands come in.
“I appreciate the effort you brought to the class, but as I state on the syllabus, I do not accept requests for extra credit after grades have been assigned. I take grading seriously and can assure you that your grade accurately reflects your performance. If you have a strong reason to believe there has been an error in your grading, please refer to the official university policy on academic appeals.”
Email: "I finished the assignment in time, but I forgot to upload it/dropped my computer in the ocean, so here it is via email instead.”
Response: Make clear in the syllabus how you want to receive assignments, and whether you have any grace period for assignments or if you have a policy around make-ups.
“As per the syllabus, I will not accept any assignments emailed to me. You can always upload an assignment after the due date and I will mark it late as appropriate. Feel free to take a look at the syllabus to learn more about my policy for make-up assignments.”
Email: “I couldn’t come to class because XYZ. Can we meet to go over what I missed?”
Response: These requests are a great opportunity for community building. Encourage students to reach out to a classmate for context on what was discussed in class, or to use your class Slack or Piazza if you have one.
“Sorry to hear you weren’t able to join us. Please reach out to one of your classmates to go over what you missed, and if you have specific questions on the material, feel free to come see me during office hours.”
Email: “Your class is full but I really want to take it/need it to fulfill a requirement! Can you sign me in?”
Response: While it’s flattering to have students trying to join your busy dance card, this is often an impossible request. We recommend thanking the student for the interest before redirecting them to the official wait list policy.
“Thanks so much for your interest in the class. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to add students over the class limit. Please see the official university policy on wait lists and registration.”