Everything Your Brain Should Know About Speeding Up Student Email Communication

Frictionless Teacher-Student Communication

Do you have an email policy that you share with students on the first day of class?  I do, and it saves me buckets of time. The idea was “borrowed” years ago from Trey Martindale, a professor and Fellow of the University of Memphis Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. He gets more email than Obama. Here's what an email policy--or "communication policy" does...

  1. Socializes students to write effective emails.
  2. Tells them what kind of response they can expect and how long it might take.
  3. Describes how to schedule an appointment.
  4. Informs them about how to access other communication channels.
  5. Lowers expectations and anxiety. 
  6. Helps students see communication from the teacher's perspective.

Below, I've posted in my What You Should Know About Communicating With Me sheet. Feel free to steal any part of it that you like for your own purposes.

What You Should Know About Communicating With Me

I want to communicate with you! However...

I do not check email every day. A three-day turnaround is about average. That’s because I do a lot of other things besides email. [This is actually a lie, I check email each day, but I like to keep expectations low, in case I get behind]

It really helps me if the subject field of your email is meaningful. Are you asking me to do something for you on a deadline? Put the date in the subject line with “Time Sensitive” in the heading, but do not put an exclamation point in our email unless you are bleeding from your ears. Too many people put exclamation points on every email they send out, so the exclamatory punctuation mark has become meaningless.

Do not ask me about a class assignment without first burning calories to find the answer on your own. Check the syllabus at this URL and the last class’s agenda.

Please word questions so I can give you a quick answer. This means, do not write a lengthy message with a question "buried" within the body.

Remember that I ask students to identify “troubleshooting” issues within the first 10 minutes of class. So wait until then to discuss class concerns unless your problem is urgent. If I can’t answer your question in class, I’ll ask you to write the problem down on a piece of paper along with your name and email address. Make sure I put your note in my left pants pocket. All of my left-pocket notes are processed before I go to bed.

Include the name of the class that you’re referring to in your emails. Some of my students take more than one class from me, so putting the name of the class that your question or comment is associated with saves me guesswork.

NEVER email an assignment to me unless I ask you to because of special circumstances. Also, please do not send forwarded emails to me or to the class with advertisements, virus warnings, chain letters, humor, get rich quick schemes, urban legends, tales of woe, etc. However, if you find something useful to share, please bring it up in class.

What to Expect Regarding My Responses

I’m going to be brief in my replies to you. It’s not personal. I just need to answer another 60 emails that night.

It is very easy to "hear" an unintended tone via email. Don't worry if you get a short answer from me.  I'm definitely not upset. I wish I could spend much longer giving you long, professorial, witty, humble, erudite elucidations on teaching and life. But I can’t without putting my life out of whack. You can infer that I think good things about you, even if my email is abrupt.

If you have a general question about a class assignment, take advantage of the course blog or message board. Another student who knows the answer might respond more quickly than me.

Other Channels of Communication


It will save time if you look at my calendar before asking for an appointment time. Here is the link to my online Google Calendar: http://tinyurl.com/2vmx7a

A Quick Note About In-Class Communication

Smile in class if you have it in you. It gives me and the class energy.

Some students get hung up on what to call me. It doesn’t matter (except for the student in 2002 who used a nickname for me in a teasing voice. That was a mistake). Call me “Todd” if you want. Some students just call me “Finley” or “Professor Finley” or “Professor Todd” or “Doc Todd” or “Mr. Todd”--

Office Visits

Do come by during office hours with course questions! Write them down if you need to—lots of students do this to avoid mind freeze. Or say hello for a minute. I am not a psychotherapist, but will listen during a crisis. It’s better to see me and tell me what’s going on than to become a ghost.

Intellectual Conversations

The best way to “interact” with me intellectually outside of class is by commenting on my blog (todd-finley.com) or through Twitter (@finley).

If you feel that maybe I really don’t understand something important that you are trying to tell me, email or say the following to me: “Let me check to make sure you are understanding…”

I'm excited for this semester. It's going to be better than ranch dressing!

Some General Advice for Teachers About Speeding Up Their Email Responses

1. Respond quickly.

Got too much email to handle? Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Alphabet Inc. says it’s much better to write short responses than to leave people in limbo. He advises saying “got it” or “got it and proceed.”

2. Remember LIFO.

Only read an email once, starting with the most recent messages (think LIFO, or Last In First Out) sent to your inbox. Efficiency guru Merlin Mann says that there are five things you can do with an email: delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do. I have three things I do with an email: 1) trash it, 2) send it to my Evernote cloud-based storage, where I can find it later by doing a keyword search, or 3) send it to my Tick.Tick.com cross-platform to-do list app and task manager.

3. Try for inbox zero.

Merlin Mann’s 43folders is the definitive sources for that.

4. Turn to GTD.

If you need a lot more information on productivity, the guru of efficiency has written the best book ever on stress-free productivity: Getting Things Done. I've read it 5 times. If your system for processing work needs major help, read Allen’s book. One time, during the height of his popularity, I sent him an email and he emailed me back that day. Yup. He lives it. 

5. Use Key Codes.

I use TextExpander for my email, which allows me to use a key codes to pop expanded text snippets in emails or virtually anything on my computer. Here are common snippets that save me keyboarding time: 

I also have snippets for commonly used words: literature, significant, teaching, transitions, collaboration, classroom, resources, unfortunately, problem, students, thank you, question, conference, thank you for, concept, professional, Edutopia, East Carolina University, literacy, because… I'm that lazy.

Alternatives to TextExpander include PhraseExpress, PhraseExpander, FastKeys, Texter, and Typinator, among others. I can't vouch for them, because I've always used TextExpander.

Feel free to borrow any elements of my email policy sheet for your own students. If you have any other ideas about what to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Dinkytown Braves is a teaching memoir that dramatizes the racial and economic tensions that a white middle class English instructor battles in his first job at a K-12 Ojibwe school near the University of Minnesota.

Unsolicited Amazon Review:

"So as you can tell, I really liked it. If you have prime kindle, you have no reason not to try it since it's free. I'm even considering buying a print copy as a gift for a friend who refuses to e-read, since it's only ten bucks."

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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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