Back in the stone ages, when I was a student and walked uphill through the snow to class, if you wanted assistance on a homework assignment, you needed to track the instructor of the class down in person, either by going to their posted office hours, or calling them on the phone to set up an appointment. With the introduction of modern communications technology, it is now possible to interact with your instructor electronically, and get help on your homework at times when you couldn’t hope to meet them in person.
While this is a tremendous improvement over the old way of doing things, here are some tips for making your electronic interaction with the person teaching your class as efficient as possible:
1) State the problem clearly. While your instructor most likely picked the problems that were assigned, he or she almost certainly has not memorized them. Asking simply “How do you do number 23?” is likely to get a request for clarification. Instead, try to summarize the problem briefly in your message: “How do you do number 23, the one with the block sliding on an inclined plane connected by a string over a pulley to a hanging block?”
2) State your problem clearly. While your instructor most likely has encountered all of the common issues that crop up in trying to do the homework, he or she almost certainly does not know which issue you are grappling with. Try to be specific about where you got stuck: “I tried to solve for the acceleration of the block on the incline, but I need to know the tension in the string. How do I find the tension in the string?” That way, your instructor can go directly to the most relevant information, rather than just giving a very general overview.
If you have absolutely no idea how to begin the problem, say that. Be prepared, though, to be answered with a suggestion that maybe you should come to office hours, and talk about the problem in person.
3) Include all the relevant information. If you’re having trouble doing data analysis for a lab, or writing a computer program, send whatever you have done with the email. Your instructor almost certainly knows the right way to do the analysis, but he or she does not know what answer you should get from your data; your instructor almost certainly knows how to write the relevant code for the computer problem, but he or she does not know why your program throws an error at line 15.
4) Be polite and patient. While electronic communication is a tremendous opportunity for you, your instructor is, in fact, an ordinary human being with interests outside the classroom. Your request for help is an imposition on their time– a minor one, if you follow this advice, but an imposition nonetheless. Try to recognize this both in writing your email (phrase your questions as a request for help, not a demand), and in waiting for the response. It may take some time for your instructor to get back to you, depending on what they were doing when you sent your request. Allow at least 24 hours to pass before re-sending your request.
5) Offer possible meeting times. In some cases it may be necessary to meet with your instructor in person to get your questions answered. If this is the case, include in your message some possible times for that meeting. Ideally, you would be able to meet during your instructor’s regularly scheduled office hours, but if that does not work for you for some reason, suggest a few times when you can meet, and ask if it would be possible to talk to them at one of those times.
If you keep these five things in mind as you prepare to send email to your instructor, your email experience will be as efficient as possible, giving you the best possible chance of getting useful assistance in a single round of messages. Failing to follow these guidelines risks drawing your homework query out for hours with requests for clarification or additional information that was missing from your original request.
(Note: These are written with science problem sets in mind as the assignment. The general underlying principles can be extended to homework in other disciplines in a relatively straightforward way, which is left as an exercise for the interested reader.
(I have used “Instructor” throughout, as these guidelines are not specific to faculty members. The same principles apply to communicating with full professors, assistant professors, TA’s, adjuncts, department secretaries, and anybody else you might need to email for help.)