Gigantic Idiot / Technical Writing

Answering Questions in an Online Classroom

Week 2 of my first semester of online teaching at OTC ended at 11:55 last night, so I thought I might answer the question everyone keeps asking me: How’s it going?

The quick-and-dirty answer: Classes are going well.

The sorry-I-asked answer: Every time I read my email, it takes a concentrated effort not to let my blood pressure get so high that my eyeballs come flying out of my head.

OK. That’s a little much.

Truth be told, there is a learning curve for online teaching and learning. Since this is my first semester teaching, I am developing these course materials for the first time, so there are kinks that have to be worked out in my assignments, activities, and technologies. (Actually, Linden and I are developing these course materials together. She’s also teaching ENG 101 this semester. Our teamwork has kept my head above water.) Likewise, for some of my students, this is their first semester in online classes, too, and there’s a big difference between seated and online classes.

Communication seems to be the biggest difference. In a seated class, students ask questions in person before, during, and after class. In person is the key here. When we communicate with someone in person, we’re communicating with more than words. We’re also communicating with our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. And there’s usually a mutual respect between student and teacher–a sort of etiquette in place.

In an online class, students ask questions via Q & A discussion board forums (for general class questions, so everyone can benefit from the answer) and via email (for personal, confidential subjects, like grades). At least that’s how questions are supposed to be asked. Lost in translation seems to be the difference between general questions and personal questions; I’m getting a lot of general questions in my email inbox. That’s one frustration, but I’m taking it in stride, replying to the questions, and reminding students in a post script where general questions should go.

Another frustration I’m fighting is messages that are written too quickly without enough thought and with too much emotion. (This is a common problem for electronic communication; without a person in front of you, it’s very easy to write something you wouldn’t say in person. We’ve all emailed, Facebooked, texted, or tweeted something too hastily and wished we could retract it.) These messages don’t give me enough information to answer the question, so I have to ask a question in the reply, wait for a response, and answer again, which wastes my time and my brain power. Likewise, trying to sort through the meaning of messages that are written out of frustration or at a pity party also waste my time and energy because I have to decode their meaning and reply diplomatically.

The biggest frustration I’m fighting is questions that are not questions or questions that can be answered by reading course materials. If I were a participant in a public discussion board forum, the answers to these questions would be simple. For I’m having trouble finding X–a question that is not a question–the answer would be That’s too bad. Good luck finding it. For What is the access code for our online reference guide?–information that can be found inside our course–the answer would be RTFM: read the frickin’ material. Much to my chagrin (and a challenge to my own desire to shoot back a “smart” response), I can’t answer questions in this manner. It’s poor form and unprofessional and not in any way teacher-like.

The benefit of online teaching is that I don’t have to answer the questions right away. I have up to 36 hours to reply to student emails, so when they catch me off guard and make my blood pressure rise, I don’t have to answer right away. I can cool off, think about my answer, and reply professionally. When I got questions that put me on the spot when teaching in seated classes, I had to answer immediately–usually in front of the entire class–and I often regretted answers that I made too hastily without enough thought. Not to mention that I usually forgot those conversations and there was no record of them later in the semester.

I face another challenge in my replies: Do I sugar coat my responses or do I just get straight to the point? Am I more concerned with making my students feel warm and fuzzy inside or with communicating an answer as effectively as I can? I’m of the opinion that if my students want to feel warm and fuzzy, they should’ve hired Mowgli (my cat) as an instructor. It’s my job to answer their questions swiftly, so they can get back to their work.

Not that I’m being a jerk with my answers; I’m keeping everything cordial by beginning emails with Hi, [student’s name], closing with Thanks! -Sarah, and including a bit of encouragement like Keep up the good work if it’s appropriate. I’m doing my best to set an example of professional communication for my students. And I’m exploring how I can train them in the fine art of asking questions and writing email. Any ideas you have are welcome!

Vote now. Brilliantly creative or gigantic idiot?



9 thoughts on “Answering Questions in an Online Classroom

  1. I don’t know that I have *the* answer to this question, but I fight this battle and I see my students 3x/week. A couple of things that have worked well for me. Set up some canned responses.

    Re: the general question via email. I reply “thanks for your question. Will you please post this…” This is my compromise between snarky response and reinforcing the behavior I want. It doesn’t answer their question (yet) and reminds them how they should be asking questions.

    RE: questions that can be found elsewhere. “Please see the syllabus/assignment sheet for this information.” Once again this doesn’t answer their question, but it does tell them where they can find it. I thought students were asking these kinds of questions because they were lazy (and some are), but I have a large group of students who seem to forget that they have an assignment/syllabus/calendar/etc.

    Both of those redirect responses usually work on the first time. All that said, if the question is urgent, I do sometimes give in an repeat info (like a due date, etc).

    RE: emotion, grammar, “bad” emails. This is one I really struggle with. I have an email policy that I give students at the beginning of the semester that talks about impressions and correct spelling, capitalization, etc. It didn’t help. Since I can see my students, I have started simply not responding to those emails. Usually they ask in class and I explain my reason. This is not necessarily the best approach, but it’s what saves my sanity. A colleague has a entire “how to send me an email guide” where she talks about why thinking about an email is likely to get a better response and clarifies the audience (i.e. I’m not your friend, we don’t text, etc) and gives examples of acceptable and unacceptable. When I teach 101 I use this as an activity where they write an email to two very different audiences saying the same thing (a friend and the univ president for example). They intuitively know the difference, but have to be reminded to stop and think about it.

  2. As a graduate student in a blended program (online and in-person), I have one piece of advice that faculty seem to miss: The simpler, the better.
    If you can communicate the basics in a simple way, it helps people who may not think or learn the same way you do.

    • @Jill
      I think the rub is do I make it simple for me or simple for the students? Students should be the answer, but I find myself thinking forward to how the course will copy in Blackboard for future semester (i.e. Leaving due dates off of assignment sheets and activities and instructing students to see the course calendar.)

    • Good clarification – it needs to be simple for the students. I have a professor [currently] who is operating under the “week 1” and referring to the course calendar, and it is MONUMENTALLY confusing. The course calendar doesn’t say “week 1” it has dates, AND it’s unclear whether something is being assigned a certain week or due that week. He’s had to re-clarify to the class as a whole twice already, and I’m still not sure when my “week 4” paper is due. As it appears to be week 3, that’s kind of a problem. So, I vote for causing yourself a tiny bit more future work (changing out dates) instead of generic. I think it would save you frustration in the long-run.

  3. I teach in an eLearning certificate program for UW-Stout ( We often work with people who have been “thrown into” online teaching without a lot of background in the pedagogy of the delivery. It IS different than teaching face-to-face. To help out people just like you, my teaching partner and I wrote “Making the Move to eLearning: Putting your Course Online” (Rowman Education, 2009). I don’t really want to have this post be a commercial, but it is a helpful resource. This book is a very practical manual to help with all aspects of online teaching (including managing email flow, course design, and facilitating those discussion forums effectively). We hear a lot of statements from readers about it like “I wish I would’ve known this before I started teaching online.’

    Check it out. It will provide you some tips for handling the issues you’ve written about as you gain more experience.

    • @lisa Thanks for letting me know about this resource! I will definitely check it (and your blog) out.

  4. @G: Would you be willing to send any of those documents to Sarah and me? I know that I, for one, am very interested in using something like that.

    What great advice in other comments!

  5. The above really re-enforces my on-line student strategy which is:

    1) Never expose your vulnerability to the online instructor which means you must:

    a) Find a compassionate, patient friend who is knowledgeable in the subject to be your tutor during the
    b) Keep your interaction and communications with the instructor to a minimum.

    Basically, what you really learn will be from friend and instructional materials. But, if you need
    the piece of paper you have to take the class.

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