Although the mythology that students give highest marks to the easiest professors is ubiquitous, the research on teaching evaluations is clear—students give the best evaluations to those professors who students perceive will help them learn and follow an organized learning plan to help students get there. This means successful professors develop systems to get information to students in an organized way.
RECOMMENDATION: Create a Teaching-Specific Email Account
Probably the single thing that has changed the most since most of us started teaching is that students and professors rapidly—and too often thoughtlessly—pose questions and provide information by Email. In the old days, students usually had to wait until after class or attend a professor’s office hours to ask questions and professors had to wait until the Department photocopier was available to distribute information. This means that business-as-usual isn’t the same as it used to be. A professor who wants to get a high evaluation score on the end-of-course evaluation item for “The professor was available” needs a winning strategy.
For the moment, let’s take a short aside and talk about strategic Email management. Because nearly all of us will strongly agree with the statement, “I get too much Email.” a professor who loses student information or doesn’t respond to students in a respectful or timely fashion will get lower evaluation scores than they would like.
The common misconception among faculty is that students expect professors to be available 24/7 to respond to their emails. We suspect that this tacit belief is originates from faculty often expect other faculty to be available 24/7 to respond to their Emails. While it is true that students rightfully complain that faculty rarely respond to their inquiries, or if they do, they do so with a seemingly disrespectful, “It’s in the syllabus.” we think that students are perfectly happy waiting for a response as long as they know WHEN to expect a response. Think for a moment about when you send an Email and you receive an away-vacation auto-response telling you when to expect a reply or what to do if it is an emergency. Do you get upset or do you work manage it? We suspect that most of you manage to work with that constraint of no one being at the other end to respond at that precise moment. What does make everyone cranky is not knowing when to receive a response; fortunately, this is easy for you to fix
The solution here is to create an email account specifically for students in the classes you are teaching to use. You could use SmithClass@yahoo.com and give this to students. I recommend that you tell students and repeat on the syllabus:
Please don’t contact me at my university.edu Email address because so much spam and junk mails comes through there that I will likely miss your Email, which I really don’t want to do. When you Email me at this special address I’ve set up for this class, I will be sure to get it and you’ll get a response by the end of the day on Tuesday or Friday when I respond to my Email. If there is an emergency and it can’t wait, don’t use Email to contact me, call my office phone number and leave a message so I can get right back to you.
Be sure to set up a polite and respectful auto-responding vacation message that repeats basically the same thing.
I received your email. Thanks for taking the time to send it. However, I usually can only check and respond to emails on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. If you haven’t heard from me by then, please contact me again. If this is an emergency and can’t wait until then, please call my office at 808-123-4567 and leave a detailed message. See you in class!
That’s it. Really. This is all it takes for students to feel like you care about being sure you get their Email message and that you care about their learning.
But there is one more step to make this work flawlessly. You also have to respond when you say you are going to. However, when you’ve set up a special Email account just for class issues and set up a time when you are going to respond, this becomes very easy if you follow three simple rules.
Three Simple Rules for Your Teaching Email Account
- Rule #1: You will NOT forward this Email account to your most frequently used Email account. This helps you stay focused on other academic pursuits without distraction.
- Rule #2: You will ONLY read and respond to your teaching Email account on specified days and times. This allows you to have all of your class information at the ready and not be distracted by other academic pursuits.
- Rule #3: You will PREWRITE most of your answers and copy -> paste your responses then make small edits. This allows you to provide seemingly thoughtful and un-rushed responses helping students know you care about their learning and follow an organized pathway to help them learn.
The best of us keep a folder of responses-to-students.txt files that we can readily copy -> paste into Emails to students. They all start with a real salutation (Dear ______) and a polite introduction saying their Email was appreciated (Thanks for taking time to send your question by Email), and then most often restating some information that was contained in the syllabus (If you can’t access your online homework, you’ll need to contact Tech Support at 800-123-4567 right away. Don’t worry, we’ll drop your lowest homework score from your final grade calculation so that a technical hiccup won’t negatively impact your grade). We then add an ending sentence about something from the class or in this week’s news so that they can see the Email response is current (Don’t forget to look for Mars in the western sky this week at sunset).
The multi-fold goals here are to: (i) provide thoughtful and timely responses to students, (ii) save you time, and (iii) keep teaching-issues separate from other academic pursuits and responsibilities.
Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com