On a typical Tuesday morning, I will sit down with my cup of coffee and open my laptop to work on my personal writing projects. Given my heavy teaching schedule and meetings on most days of the week, I always look forward to Tuesdays as days to recharge, re-organize and catch up on my own projects and research. Upon opening my laptop, I see three new emails: two from students and one from my department chair. I take about twenty minutes to respond to these emails, drift over to social media and browse around a bit and then return to my manuscript.

As I start to work, another stream of emails comes in. My students have a paper due tomorrow and I sigh, realizing that I will likely face a high volume of student emails. The typical emails surface: requests for extensions, complaints about the guidelines of the papers and inquiries about submission details—emails often called “hail Mary” attempts, “passing the buck” or “if I had a time machine” emails in this article by Steffen Wilson and Dan Florell. I feel my frustrations grow, but put my manuscript aside to answer these students.  

The day continues on in this manner with my own work being intermittently interrupted by emails and Carmen notifications. While, on one hand, I could turn off email notifications, I know that student evaluations weigh heavily on my timely communication and, also research has proven that  frequent email communication and prompt responses to student emails aids in student success and shows an increase in course retention and completion.

Perhaps these factors are what prompt academic faculty to spend nearly 13% of our work days responding to and writing emails, while only using 2-3% of the day on average for personal research and manuscript writing, as detailed in study published by Inside Higher Ed.  As someone trying to balance teaching a new course, revise two articles and outline at least one chapter for an upcoming manuscript, these numbers resonate closely with my own concerns. What are some strategies I can use to respond promptly and thoroughly to student emails while reducing the amount of time I spend on reading and writing emails?

After doing some digging and research about email management systems (and having a useful conversation with a UCAT consultant), I wrote this post to compile some strategies for managing student emails and reducing the time needed to spend reading, responding to and organizing emails. These strategies have helped me to avoid losing emails or missing important emails in the midst of a full inbox. While these strategies are specific to the Ohio State University, they could be adapted for a variety of educational settings.

  1.  Organize your inbox(es) before you start reading emails.

Some faculty prefer that students only use the emailing function in Carmen because it keeps their OSU account uncluttered. You can ask the students to reach out to you via Carmen and then reserve your OSU webmail account for institutional and departmental emails. This simple organizational technique allows you to separate responsibilities and to quickly locate emails that need attention in each group. Some experts recommend that you create a specific email account only for teaching. 

Similarly, you can ask students to put the same subject line in all of their emails. For example, they may use (maybe a section #)” as the start of the subject line. These emails will then be easy to sort into folders and to give context as to which student is emailing you in regards to which course you are teaching. Also, some email servers will allow you to use a filter so that any email with a subject line goes into a specific folder. This resource contains more helpful information regarding organizing your inbox. 

Be sure to remind your students of this request periodically so that they remember when they sit down to email you.

  1.      Structure email around your time, not your time around email.

It is easy to get caught up in the flow of reading and responding to emails all day long. Rather than approaching email as a tool of immediacy, instead consider setting days or times in which you respond to emails. You may want to limit these to a block of hours several times a week. Make sure you communicate these parameters to your students and remind them that it may take 24-48 hours for you to respond. If you give these guidelines, however, it is important to stick to this timeframe. During your set email response times, it can be helpful to initially go through all unanswered emails and make a list that you can scratch off as you respond. If you do not get to an email in that time, note when you received the email and make sure to respond within the parameters you established.

Also, since many student emails ask about general information that is already on the syllabus or in an online forum, you could create a Frequently Asked Questions Carmen page for your course and refer students to that rather than typing up emails to students with redundant answers. Similarly, you can always encourage students to check the announcements/discussions on your online forum before emailing you. Another useful technique is to have a stock set of responses ready to copy and paste. Some instructors have developed a Google doc or Word doc of all stock answers and use these to respond to students rather than writing new emails each time.

You could also consider creating a customized signature line for your email just for your classes. These lines may include reminders about reading the syllabus for answers or looking at announcements/a FAQ statements page for help.  Also, you can use a closing statement on your signature that says something along the lines of the following: “Your questions are important to me. Please let me know if you don’t find what you are looking for in this email and on Carmen.”  

No matter what policy you adopt in regards to student emails, be sure to communicate this policy with students. It can be helpful to put together a short quiz over your email policy that you administer the first week of class. The quiz could count towards participation points or extra credit for the students and will ensure that they have read and understand your email policies and requests. It would be useful to explain to the students why you request certain procedures, such as how having multiple sections of one class can make it difficult to remember which student is in which section or that these policies help to prevent you from losing emails.

Finally, consider requesting an appointment with a consultant at UCAT to discuss various strategies for email and class communication management.

Kelly Jo Fulkerson-Dikuua is a Graduate Consultant at UCAT and a PhD candidate in the department of African American and African Studies.
Written in collaboration with Stephanie Rohdieck, Associate Director of UCAT.