Stop Drowning in Email

mid-career issues
Online instructors frequently cite email as the biggest distraction in managing their online course workload. Those obnoxious pop-ups or auditory dings announcing new email might as well be a siren call, pulling online instructors away from the work at hand and into a stormy sea of email. The good news is you don't have to drown in your email. You can implement techniques and strategies to decrease the amount of email you receive from students, as well as manage the email you do receive and respond to it more efficiently and, most important, on your terms!

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Online instructors frequently cite email as the biggest distraction in managing their online course workload. Those obnoxious pop-ups or auditory dings announcing new email might as well be a siren call, pulling online instructors away from the work at hand and into a stormy sea of email. The good news is you don't have to drown in your email. You can implement techniques and strategies to decrease the amount of email you receive from students, as well as manage the email you do receive and respond to it more efficiently and, most important, on your terms!
  1. Create a dedicated email account—If possible, create a separate email address dedicated to your online course(s). Some institutions may have their learning management systems (LMS) locked down so you cannot change your email in it, but if you can, change your email to your dedicated account to keep course emails separate from your “regular” email.
  2. Use filters and rules—If you can't create a separate email address, consider setting up a rule or filter to send all your course email to a separate folder that you can check on your schedule.
  3. Create and communicate your email checking policy with students—To avoid multiple emails from the same student on the same topic, communicate your email checking policy with students at the beginning of the course. I always let my students know that I check my email Monday through Friday, twice a day, once at 8:00 a.m. and once at 4:00 p.m. I will respond to their emails at that time. If they write me at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, they will not receive a response until after 8:00 a.m. on Monday.
  4. Create an auto-reply for students—If using a dedicated, separate email address, as suggested in #1, then create and turn on an auto-reply for all incoming email that states your email checking policy from #3. For example:Your email has been received. As a reminder, I check my email Monday through Friday, twice a day, once at 8:00 a.m. and once at 4:00 p.m. I do not respond to emails over the weekend.
  5. Get students to read the syllabus—One immediate way to get students to email less is to make them read the syllabus. Giving a quiz on the syllabus information will force students to read the document. A syllabus quiz also provides an opportunity to troubleshoot any issues the student may have with online testing before a high-stakes test.
  6. Create a Frequently Asked Questions area in your course—Answer any student questions that are relevant to everyone in a public area in your course, and then train your students to go there for answers before contacting you.
  7. Refer students to where in the course the answers to such questions are posted—If students are asking questions that have already been answered in the course documents, discussion boards, or announcements, refer them back to the course to find the answer. This is part of training students to utilize the course as it was meant to be used. If students are asking a question that would be relevant to all students, copy their question into your question-and-answer discussion board, answer it, and reply to their email directing them to look for the answer that you have posted in the Q&A discussion board.
  8. Require student signature lines—Institute a policy that students must include a signature line with their name as it appears in your LMS or SIS to take the guesswork out of your responding. Don't spend time trying to figure out who that generic Gmail account belongs to!
  9. Implement a protocol for subject lines—While you are instituting course policies, consider implementing a protocol for drafting subject lines. Some LMSs automatically include the course name or ID in the subject line. That's great, but if your LMS does not, or if students write you directly (not through the LMS), you may want to make sure they include a course prefix, course number, and section number so you can access their information quickly and efficiently.
  10. Turn off your desktop email notifications—After you have budgeted the time you will spend checking your email, dare to turn off your email notifications. Without the constant distraction of notification of new email, you can fully focus on your other tasks.
Reducing the amount of email you receive is often about training your students to read the syllabus, to utilize the Q&A areas already built into your course, to identify themselves in emails using a signature line, and to write subject lines that are helpful to you. Management  of your email can be achieved by using email tools such filters, rules, and auto-replies, and in some cases, turning off email tools such as notifications. Finally, keeping your head above water is sometimes about good old-fashioned time management, such as setting aside specific times to respond to student email and sticking to that schedule. Allyson Davis is an instructional technologist at Clemson University.