How to email your lecturer (and get a useful reply)

I took a week of leave before term started and tried really hard not to check emails. With a few assessment deadlines due this week it’s left me with a small backlog of email queries from students. Seeing them as a chunk of enquiries like this, rather than the trickle I’m used to, it became really clear what makes a good email to me – that is one I can reply to quickly and succinctly – and a bad email that will take further effort to clarify or understand. This is advice I wish I’d been given as a student, since I was guilty of many of these mistakes myself. As term begins I wanted to share a few tips:

  1. Do you really need to email? For example I have 3 office hours a week. Few students use them so those that do get the best out of me. I never let anyone leave without solving their problem. A few tips for office hours:
    1. Have a list of questions ready to go and pen and paper ready for the answers.
    2. If it’s a technical query have your laptop open booted up and ready to go…going through Windows updates together with your lecturer is not what you’re there for!
    3. Come as a pair or three if you want…someone else may remember the question you forgot to ask and the discussion is always helpful.
  2. If you do need to email then make the subject line clear and include the module code. Academics teach lots of modules and I’m afraid to say they don’t know all their students by name. It takes a while to realise what module a student is referring to otherwise.
  3. Be professional! We don’t expect emails to be super formal but we also don’t expect emoticons or just one liners like “Hi, Can we have a quick catchup this afternoon :-)?” from students.
  4. Don’t expect an immediate reply! Academics get lots of emails a day and they have many other responsibilities that aren’t just teaching your module. Expect to wait at least a couple of working days. After that send a polite reminder or come to an office hour!
  5. If you don’t get a timely reply don’t start emailing other lecturers who may be teaching on the module. Things get muddled and the chances are they’ll forward responses back to the person you wanted to hear from in the first place.
  6. If you get an out of office wait a day or so until after the return date before sending a reminder. Sending more emails just creates stress for the lecturer concerned. They’ll be keen to help but they might just need some time.
  7. Be concise and specific in your request:
    1. State the problem.
    2. State what you have tried already to solve it.
    3. Be clear about where help is needed. A bulleted list works well for multiple questions.
  8. Don’t sound angry or fed up with whoever your emailing if they can’t help right away. This won’t work in your favour.
  9. Say thank you! If the help worked then tell your lecturer, they need positive feedback too!