Division of Academic Affairs
Are you overwhelmed by student email? Would you like some help to keep it under control? Listen as Garvey describes a few tips for managing email and limiting inbox clutter.
This is Teaching and Learning Matters, and I am Dr. Garvey Pyke. One of the principles for classroom success is for students to have regular interaction with their instructors both in and out of the classroom. And like it or not, students will often choose to interact with you via email. So what are some tips for managing email to keep it under control?
First of all, I recommend that everyone creates an email policy, and print this in your course syllabus. Let students know what the boundaries are and what they can expect from you. For example, “I answer email Monday through Thursday from 10 to 4, and it usually takes me 48 hours—or two business days—to answer your email.” Or whatever your policy is…
The key is to create a policy and then let them know what it is. This will curtail the overzealous student who emails you five minutes after sending you another email to ask why you haven’t answered the first one yet. It also encourages shyer students to send email or interact with you, since a policy shows boundaries and implies that it is not an imposition or impoliteness of any kind to email you.
Secondly, I believe in using the power of your email program to its fullest. Email is a wonderful creation, but most of us fail to use the timesaving, organizational features that are built into the email program. Whether you use Outlook or another program, you can create “rules” or “filters” that sort your email messages as they come in.
Personally, I use color coding, which makes email in my inbox appear in different colors. Dark green means messages sent to me only; light green means it was sent to me and a group; brown means mailing list. I also use folders: in other words, email can be automatically sorted into folders. Then I can deal with them according to their importance and urgency.
The easiest way to sort incoming email from your students is to require that they include the section number or some such identifier in the subject line. Thus, when you create your email rule or filter, you can base it on this identifier. Then the student emails can be sorted and tracked into folders automatically, allowing you to handle them when you choose. This will help keep your inbox free—or at least not so cluttered.
Some people wonder how long they should keep student email and the email we send to students. Some faculty keep it forever, so to speak. Others say one year, and others say three years. I have no simple rule for this, but if you have the storage space, it may be useful to keep especially those emails where difficult situations or issues have been documented. It is always nice to have written records to help us refresh our memories when students ask for recommendations, or heaven forbid, make unfounded accusations.
I heard another tip during a teleconference years ago. The presenter (her name escapes me now) suggested that our email policies with our students include what can and cannot be asked about in email. For example, they cannot ask about such things such as due dates, et cetera, that are already on the syllabus. Some faculty simply do not answer such emails, while others tell students they will take a point off their next test grade for sending such an inquiry.
Where you may fall on that continuum is up to you, but just beware that students will ask all kinds of things that you wish they wouldn’t. Along those lines, students will ask you for tech support, library assistance, you name it! Again, let them know what you will and won’t answer in email, and point them in the right direction from the start by including in your syllabus the relevant phone numbers, locations, and so forth of the departments who handle such things.
I want to reiterate that email is a wonderful tool, as long as you can keep it under control. I hope these tips work for you, and if you have some suggestions for me, I would love to hear them. Or if you have any questions for me, feel free to email me at…well…maybe it’s better if you just stop by sometime. Come on over to the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte, and we will talk about this or other strategies that fit your style, your students’ needs, and your subject area.
Thanks for listening, and please tune in next time. Until then, so long, and remember: Teaching and Learning Matters.
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