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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do You (Or Do You Not) Answer Student Substantive Questions Over E-mail?

Yesterday's post about the efficacy of e-mail office hours prompted an interesting and (to me at least) unexpected discussion in the comments section. As you can see, a few commenters indicated that they tell students that they won't answer substantive questions over e-mail for a variety of reasons, including: (1) if students can get answers over e-mail, they won't approach professors (as much) after class and during office hours, which leads to negative consequences; (2) e-mail exchanges are not pedagogically effective (because the student isn't quite asking what the e-mail suggests and/or because it is just the professor feeding the student an answer rather than the student learning it); (3) because e-mail is costless, it leads students to think of the professor as the first resource for an answer; and (4) e-mail answering can be time prohibitive and counter-productive.

In many ways, the choice to ban student substantive questions over e-mail seems similar to the choice to ban laptops in class, a choice that has often been discussed recently (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). Just as some professors want students to fully engage in class discussions and not hide behind their laptops, some professors want students to engage with them after class and/or during office hours and, well, not hide behind their laptops. Indeed, I know one professor at my school who makes it mandatory that each student in his classes stops by his office at least once a semester so that he gets to know his students (and they get to know him) better.

That said, there are many pros to answering student substantive questions over e-mail. Some students learn better seeing answers written down than hearing answers to questions. If a student is at home trying to work through a case and can get an answer from me via e-mail within a matter of minutes, this can be more effective than the student waiting a day or days to get an answer. If I'm responding to an e-mail, I can give a little bit more thought to my answer than if I am immediately responding to a student's question after class or during office hours. And, I'm sure that readers can think of many more pros and cons to answering/not answering student substantive questions over e-mail. So, what do you think? Do you answer student substantive questions over e-mail or not, and why or why not? You can respond by leaving a comment and/or responding to the following poll.

Do You Answer Student Substantive Questions Over E-mail?

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-Colin Miller  

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on September 23, 2010 at 10:05 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Hi Colin,
Glad you're back, getting profs to discuss the specifics of teaching - I answer simple questions by email, but after the first one, or if it would take me a more than a few minutes to compose a good answer, I respond that we should talk in person instead. In general, I'm fascinated by the way that email simultaneously connects and distances us from each other. . .
Mary Jean

Posted by: mj | Sep 24, 2010 12:33:15 AM

I don't answer substantive student questions over e-mail, but I encourage them to e-mail questions to me. I then either a) raise the question in class for discussion, or b) post the question with a response on the course website. In the latter case, my answers may not always be direct. Sometimes all I do is point them to a relevant passage in the reading or (if the question involves something that is not fully settled), give an answer that clarifies the nature of the uncertainty in the doctrine.

One reason for this approach is that it avoids any student complaints about my having given one student an unfair advantage with an answer. It also doesn't disadvantage students who have course schedules that conflict with mine. I also find that, as they begin preparing for exams, they often have questions at odd times, and this enables them to ask the question when it comes to them by shooting off an e-mail.


Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Sep 23, 2010 12:22:06 PM

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