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.)

Comments

  1. #1 Susan B.
    April 27, 2009

    I have a suspicion that often if a student could do numbers 1, 2, and 3, he or she would already be able to solve the problem. Frequently I have students coming to me for calculus help, and the first thing I always ask is for them to tell me the problem. Most of the time they struggle to explain it, and when I finally get them to be clear and precise, they realize they do know how to solve it after all.

  2. #2 Rhett
    April 27, 2009

    6) Include your name in the email. We have these odd student numbers for emails and often students will not include their name. Also, I have received emails from birddog23@aol.com before asking for help. I checked my class roster, but there was no one named “Bird Dog”.

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    April 27, 2009

    Susan B nails it. About half the time I get an immediate follow-up e-mail message saying they figured it out. A common source of difficulty is a failure to read the problem carefully, so writing it out will fix that.

    As for your example, my questions would always be “What broad class of problems did you put this in?” (because “one-body F=ma” is the most probable error for that one) and “Did you draw a free-body diagram?”.

    One nice feature of the on-line homework system I use is that student mail sent while looking at a problem includes their version of the problem (*and* their attempts at it) as a hidden attachment only the instructor can see. That eliminates some of the problems you mention under steps 1 and 2. In addition, our college data system makes it comparatively easy for me to see a students class schedule and suggest an appointment time.

    PS –
    My favorite snarky answer to the “how do I find the tension” question is “call it T, and go looking for a second equation so you can use that skill many people call ‘algebra'”. My second favorite concerns opening the textbook they spent a C note on.

  4. #4 Playstations
    April 27, 2009

    Great ;)

  5. #5 Nick Anthis
    April 27, 2009

    Geez, I hope my students read this….

    It’s also of note that a reasonable attempt at proper spelling and grammar can’t hurt–at the very least writing in complete sentences and using real words (i.e. “you” vs. “u”).

  6. #6 Bardiac
    April 27, 2009

    Especially at places where your instructor teaches several classes, a student should mention which class s/he’s in.

    And a student should at least check the syllabus for the office hours and office. How often do students ask when my office hours are while standing with the syllabus in their hands? Too often!

  7. #7 gladysandron
    April 27, 2009

    It all makes sense..

  8. #8 kate
    April 27, 2009

    Back in the day when I was an undergrad, when I did walk up hill through the snow to class (two years in a dorm at the bottom of a hill at a school in MN), a common way of dealing with this kind of problem was to go ask one of your neighbors. Usually, especially in the intro science classes, calc, stats, econ, and foreign languages you could find someone who could help you immediately without having to put on shoes.

    Not that I would discourage students from seeking out instructors, but generally a classmate could point out whatever I was having momentary brain freeze about immediately.

    Has not having to play phone tag and/or actually walk across campus in the show put a damper in this kind of collaborative learning?

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    April 27, 2009

    I have a suspicion that often if a student could do numbers 1, 2, and 3, he or she would already be able to solve the problem. Frequently I have students coming to me for calculus help, and the first thing I always ask is for them to tell me the problem. Most of the time they struggle to explain it, and when I finally get them to be clear and precise, they realize they do know how to solve it after all.

    I agree that that’s often the case, but I’m talking about an even simpler problem, namely that I get emails asking how to do Problem Such-and-so, which I’m trying to answer from someplace where I don’t have the textbook. If they remind me what the set-up is, I can give them the general pointers to get them to define the problem more precisely, and then things get fixed. But I don’t recall the numbers that go with specific problems.

    It’s also of note that a reasonable attempt at proper spelling and grammar can’t hurt–at the very least writing in complete sentences and using real words (i.e. “you” vs. “u”).

    Oh, God, yes. Unless your name is Prince, and you are funky, you should not be using numerals or single letters to stand in for words. And you’ll need to come to class wearing a purple jumpsuit in order to claim the Prince exemption.

  10. #10 Zack
    April 27, 2009

    Every quarter I was a TA, I would say in the first meeting of each section: if you send email asking for help at one in the morning the night before a deadline, you will not get an answer in time; if I’m still awake, it’s because I’ve got a deadline of my own.

    Every quarter, someone sent me one of these cries for help anyway.

    (The best ever, though, was the message at 8:30AM on the day of a midterm saying “I heard campus is closed because of the wildfire, do we still have midterms?” As the university had done a stunningly bad job of announcing the closure, this was the first I’d heard of it.)

  11. #11 Family Homework Answers
    April 27, 2009

    Believe it or not, many students have always had their parents sitting with them while they study and do homework. Going away to college means not only missing Mom’s cooking, it also means not having Mom or Dad at one’s beck and call. This is good advice. I would also like to add that parents need to think about teaching their middle and high school children to be independent learners so they won’t be so lame in college.

  12. #12 purba
    April 28, 2009

    I thought the point about the imposition on the teacher a very pertinent one. No matter how insignificant you think your problem is, you are still expecting a teacher to give up his time to solve it. The least we can do is to be patient about a response. I have been a teacher and a student at the same time. I understand the need to have a response to the problem you are facing at the moment you face it. However, you should always keep a bit of time on hand and not expect the teacher to be your personal assistant!
    Also, no matter how pressed for time you are, avoid sms language in your mails. It often forces me to go through the mail twice, just to make out what the student means. That is not a very pleasant experience!

  13. #13 fvngvs
    April 28, 2009

    It’s all about showing that you’ve done the work and need some assistance, as opposed to wanting someone else to do the job for you.

    See also: http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

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