The Opportunity Cost of an Email

There’s a midterm this week in my class of 550 students, and I have been deluged with emailed questions, many procedural, that are covered in the online daily class summary. (For example, is the test being given in class?)  In the old days, when students came to office hours to ask questions, I wouldn’t have gotten most of these queries.  Regrettably, a student’s opportunity cost of emailing is much less than the cost of an office visit.

Why don’t I raise the cost to students by refusing to answer these emails?  If I thought that would deter all such questions and visits, I would refuse. But even if 20 percent of the emails translate into student visits, I’m better off answering the emails, since each takes me at most 1/5 as long as dealing with the question face-to-face in my office.  This is annoying, but I believe I save time this way.

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  1. Rex McClure says:

    I am confronted with situation every semester, just like The Hammer. I try to answer every email personally. But if I see two or more that are asking essentially the same question, then I’ll make mass emailing to the class. This drastically cuts down on the redundancy of answering every email. And through careful wording, it makes every student who asked the question feel like they are the genius who spotted the issue.

    Of course, I bear the cost of building a high quality email address list for my classes. But the kids feel like they are informed.

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    • James says:

      You could also have a “dumb questions list”, from which you cut & paste the appropriate pre-written answer. And post the same dumb questions list on the class web page :-)

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    • steve cebalt says:

      As someone who lives (or dies) in the “real” economy and not the insulated world of academia, I am shocked by this post and the whole thread. Here is the real problem — the professor’s worldview:

      “Why don’t I raise the cost to students by refusing to answer these emails? If I thought that would deter all such questions and visits, I would refuse. ”

      If I said that publicly about my company’s interactions with customers, I’d be fired. It reflects very poorly on the prof and on the institution he represents.

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  2. Nick says:

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  3. Tim Johnson says:

    Hi Professor,

    I have a few suggestions I learned from being a teaching assistant that may help save you some time and headache:

    –Record and make lectures available through a class portal website.
    –Repeat in the syllabus that procedural questions that are answered in the class summary available online will not be answered via email.
    –Use a canned answering system for the procedural questions. “Answered in the syllabus/class summary.”
    –Post answers to homework after they are due, and to midterms after they’re taken (if possible).

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  4. Ben Sauer says:

    Have you considered simply replying with no more than a link to the class documentation?

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  5. Alan says:

    Wait. Isn’t part of your job to host office visit and answer those questions from your students that are thoughtful and haven’t already been answered? Yet you would not answer emails if it would deter all emails and visits. Perhaps you meant “all emails and visits pertaining to non-thoughtful and not-already-answered questions.” If so, fine.

    If you didn’t mean that, I think you are being too restrictive. On the other hand, you are being too soft. Raise their opportunity cost and save yourself time by answering with a stock answer, when appropriate, “Your questions was answered in the materials previously provided. Check those materials. If after doing so you believe your question is not addressed or the materials are unclear, and you write me to that effect and – if you believe the materials are unclear, you also explain the lack of clarity – then I will answer your question. However, if I conclude that it is beyond reasonable dispute that the answer was provided and was clear, I will subtract X points from your grade.” (That last part might not be allowed in your school, but even without it, this will at least force the students to spend the time claiming that they have read the materials and perhaps even lead some to do so. )

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  6. Peter Tanham says:

    Why not create a form on your website (or faculty profile page) and tell students that it’s the only way to get in touch with you.

    Make sure it’s only open to take questions between 6am – 10am each day.

    That way a student will have to pay a cost of time and memory. They won’t bother waiting (or setting a reminder) if the question isn’t pressing.

    As a student, a question have had to be quite important to get me out of bed before 10 am :-)

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  7. Bilal says:

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  8. Daniel J. Luke says:

    Why not just deduct points from some category (class participation) for students who don’t read the available information – giving them an incentive to actually read before asking a question?

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