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.

Rex McClure

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.


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 :-)


FAQs is more polite! :-)


Email storage should be required, make them keep all emails for 3 years and pay for the storage space. This will increase the opportunity cost and as a side benefit more records will be available if they are ever needed.

Tim Johnson

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).

Ben Sauer

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


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. )


Peter Tanham

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 :-)


Why can't a student from the previous year be trained and empowered to handle the new students.

Daniel J. Luke

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?


A strong deterrent to asking dumb question is the embarrassment that follows. Why not channelling questions through an open forum where answers are made public :
1/ you should avoid repeats
2/ fear of embarrassment should deter students to ask dumb questions

Paul Walker

A collaboarative tool such as Salesforce Chatter (or Yammer or Jive) would improve this process.
1) Other students can see questions and answers. Students get to choose what topics/threads they're interested in. Increases enagement and improves feedback loop.
2) You can post links to files (FAQ's) or rich media (eg YouTube) on common topics
3) Nice mobile interface to support students on the go
4) Free - and no setup/admin costs


You are not saving yourself time; if you implement a 2% penalty for asking questions contained in the syllabus you will at once drop the number of emails you receive and drastically increase interest in reading the syllabus before asking questions. Even for those now-office visits from folks that misunderstood, they will have undertaken every effort to understand before hand.


This + thorough tracking of the common questions year in and year out should allow you to add answers to those questions to the syllabus in the form of syllabus bullet points. Eventually you would have a thorough syllabus which answers the bulk of anything that might come up, thereby reducing questions in the future.


Why don't you "create" a cost. Make a rule. If you ask anything already answered in the summary your exam is docked by "x" points. I bet that would make them read before emailing!


I commented above, consolidating with another poster's suggestion. But when it comes to general hardnosed professorship (which all the best professors are hard nosed...high standards = high performance) I defer to the resources compiled by this professor. He has codified the philosphy held by my best professors from Texas A&M, although he isn't a professor there.


Interesting, but is it not worth factoring the the value to you of teaching your students to think before they ask? What about an experiment in replying to the already-answered emails with a pre-written response that mildly disincentivizes more than would a non-response? Something like "The question you asked was covered in your daily class summary. Did you read the material? How do you think asking a question that has been covered in the daily course summary should reflect on you as a student?" Even if you don't read the responses, you could have an impact in their thinking before they ask and reduce future emails as well. Would be an interesting and fun experiment for me, at least. What do you think?

Steve Cebalt

Just because something is efficient does not mean it is effective. Rather than trying to re-engineer the behavior of 55o students, recognize that your online daily summary is not effective at conveying the class procedures, and fix that problem. Further, revert to the office visits. And adopt an attitude that these visits are a valuable opportunity to interact with students. This may sound radical, but....


Are the questions repetitive? Could always use an "ask questions" blog format like on tumblr so students with the same Q could find their answer more easily without emailing.

Eric M. Jones

Many excellent suggestions here.

But are you student helpers and TA's so busy updating their Facebook and Twitter thingies that they can't be bothered to do the task?