I have a student appealing a grade in my Fall 2013 geography course. The course is 100% online. All homework is submitted via the university learning management system (LMS). The LMS reports no grades for the student for any assigned work, though time-date stamps exist to indicate the assignments were at least accessed. The student vehemently states the homework was submitted. The student never checked their scores online, never checked to see verify the homework had, in fact, been graded by the LMS, the entire semester. Only at the end of the semester did the student realize their grade book was full of zeros. The student never emailed throughout the 17 week semester any concern or question regarding grades or whether or not I could see if homework was being successfully managed. No indication of even idle curiosity about course performance.
In our email exchange to initial the process of the Grade Appeal, I inquired, “Why did you not check at points throughout the semester your assignments were being graded?” Students have to assume some responsibility for ensuring their online course work does not evaporate into the ether. There was an assumption on her part, “I’ve not had issues before so I didn’t expect any issues, now.” And later, in our email exchange, was this bewildering statement: “As a senior, I have been told time and time again by faculty not to email about grades, or to email about homework. Now, its engrained in me not to ask.”
And there in lies the basis for the essay.
I found her statement incredulous. No, that is not true, I told myself. Faculty always respond to student’s emails. Perhaps not in a timely manner, maybe a few days go by, but students always get replies. Right? Besides, this is an online course. Our only method of communication is email! If we can’t email, how can we even communicate basic course details, address questions? I really did boogle at her comment. But, as I would discover, I had much more to boggle about.
College students work at one of the local coffeeshops I frequent. Without divulging any of my student’s details, I asked the ladies working one evening, “You’ve never had a faculty person tell you not to email them about grades, have you?”
“Oh yeah. Happens all the time. I got an email just today. We’ll not really to me, personally, but it was a class announcement, sent out as an email. Something like, “Don’t bother me about grades! I will have your homework graded when I have your homework graded!”
And it went that way for all three ladies working on that shift, that night. One was more specific.
“I have 6 classes, taught by 4 different faculty. Two of my faculty are really good about email me back. Usually, it may take a day or two, or three. The other two have specifically said in class, in emails, and as announcements, “Do not bother me with emails about your grades.“”
These are simply anecdotes, of course, representing no real study. I know one of my peers will often tell me, “I post an announcement and tell them, Don’t email about your grade. I will grade your papers when I grade them.” I shook the comment off as being one person, an aberration, an anomaly, certainly not representative of my university culture. Then, in talking to one of my friends, a non-traditional student, back in school, I found someone in my own department had issued such a statement.
I don’t care what you heard in other courses, in my course, this is the rule.
Now, the weight of anecdotal evidence was causing my brain to boggle. Is it possible my student was right? After nearly four years of college, had she really been conditioned not to inquire about grades or other course details? I now suspect this was entirely possible.
Some portion of the population is probably susceptible to forms of conditioning. But, let’s consider what is happening. Faculty consider themselves as “islands,” or “fortresses,” use whatever euphemism you like. We don’t want to consider how others manage courses, or the impact of our assignments, ego, or our general discourse outside of our own classes. We issue dictums, at will, sometimes whimsically, sometimes capriciously as if none others have ever been issued, and we will often say, “I don’t care what you heard in other courses, in my course, this is the rule.”
Do not bother me with emails about your grades.
A student taking six courses may have 6, or more, different dictums issued over the course of four months. A professor teaching two courses, may have a completely different set of operating conditions in her 100-level course as she does in her 300-level course. Add to the complexity some courses are team-taught, with each instructor have a unique set of conditions. Continue this pattern semester-to-semester, year-upon-year, and I can understand why a person might be conditioned to simply comply and be assimilated.
But, not responding to student emails is not right.
Telling students not to bother faculty about grades, or answering questions about the syllabus, etc., is not right, either. We have our employment because of students. We were once in their position, albeit a few years ago, and some of us were that student who darkened professors doorways every day, or stayed after class. Some of us seem to have forgotten our roots and what our primary mission must be. We also should realize we are not teaching in vacuum. We might like to think we are, and there may be times when we can instruct students like no other course exist beyond ours – but, that is not reality. We are representing ourselves, our department, our college, our university, and our discipline. We don’t have to act like assholes because we are overwhelmed by issues within our grasp to control. Find a more legitimate reason to be an asshole.
There are ways to reduce the amount of questions, some simple ways to filter out most questions, and shift some of the responsibility upon students. By implementing a couple of simple strategies, you can increase student responsibility and reduce the dread and stress of answering student emails. I try to find ways to make my students more and more responsible, for their own work, for being a critical peer to other students, and assume responsibility for their actions.
1. First, create a “Frequently Asked Question” page for your course. Even if this is a traditional, in-class course, a FAQ page can eliminate a lot of email questions. Since implementing my FAQ pages, I’ve had my email traffic related to basic course questions drop by over 80%, I estimate.
You might say, “Well, they just need to read my syllabus!” True, but we can’t put everything in our syllabus which may help address and answer questions about the actual course mechanics. Our syllabus tends to be chock full of information, some contents of which we are required to add by our university administrators. I create a FAQ page to address the questions I commonly receive about grading, how to study, ways to study, and a proposed work-flow for the course. I couch my advice not simply to help them in my course, to help them in other courses.
I mention to my students I will not answer emails which have answers specifically in the syllabus or answered by the FAQ page. Thus, if you do not receive an answer from me, its likely due to the answer existing in either of those two places.
2. If a student has a unique question or questions about the subject, I tell them I will respond to their email within 24-48hrs, except for weekends. However, if they don’t received an email after that time period they should consult the courses web page announcements before emailing. The possibility exists more than one students asked nearly the same question, and rather than answer each email, I post an announcement on the course website.
I spend summers and evenings and weekends modifying content and in examination of my course details to help smooth the delivery of my courses so my students can focus on content and not so much on what I consider boring questions, like “how many writing assignments do we have?” and “do we have to work one chapter per week or can we do more?”
3. Furthermore, I tell my students their emails need to be properly written, with correct spelling and grammar. If not, I reserve the right not to response to poorly written emails.
My implementing a FAQ page for my courses, the emails have dropped immensely. Students also take a 20-pt quiz over my syllabus and FAQ page and an opening essay just to ensure they cannot come back later and say, “I did not know.” Yeah, you did. You took my syllabus quiz which tells me, and tells the university, you absolutely knew.
My email stress level has not gone away, but it has diminished. A portion of students won’t comply. Just like society, right? But, if you can reduced 50 emails per day down to 5 emails per day, that is a big stress reliever. I will grant you some students seem incapable of abiding by anything I do and will email 8x’s a day. Colleges and universities are finding an increasing number of students with mental health issues, and I can only think a student who emails 8-10xs a day about minutiae has some form of OCD personality disorder.
Do yourself a favor and create a FAQ page for your courses. Either traditional or online, both forms of course delivery can benefit from a FAQ page. Have the students refer to the FAQ page so you can move on to instruction.