Sidewalk with the word "Communication" etched into it.

“Communication” by F Delventhal is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Students often reach out to me at the beginning of the term.  They express their concerns about the course, they confess their shortcomings as students and writers, and they solicit some advice.

“What’s the one thing I can do to increase my chances of doing well?” they ask.

“Simple,” I say. “Keep the lines of communication open.”

The most successful students are the ones who aren’t afraid to reach out to their professors with questions, concerns, and comments. If you’re not used to communicating with your instructors, here are some helpful tips to help you get the most out of each interaction:

Reach Out Early

Most online universities and colleges require their instructors to respond to student inquiries within 24 – 48 hours. So, if you have a paper due by 11:59 PM on Sunday, you don’t want to wait until 11:00 PM to email your instructor. Look over the assignments in the beginning of the week and send questions as soon as they arise!

Avoid Vague Comments and Questions

A few weeks ago, I had a student email me with the following comments: “I was really confused by the assignment, but I did my best.” I emailed her back, and I asked some follow-up questions, “What confused you? What would you like help with?” By the time she got back to me, the deadline had passed. It was too late to discuss the assignment or discuss specific strategies for completing the assignment. Had she posed a specific question in the original email, then things might have turned out differently. If you ask vague questions, you’ll get vague answers. If you ask clear and specific questions, then you’ll get clear and specific responses.

Be Prepared

Every now and then, I get a student who will send me an email like this: “I’m confused by the assignment. Explain it to me, please.” All of the assignments I teach come with detailed instructions and rubrics (the same can be said for most assignments in most online courses). So, I’m not willing to simply rewrite the instructions. However, I *am* willing to respond to a specific question with a specific direction or a specific piece of language from the rubric. I know many of my colleagues feel similarly. So, if you want an individualized response to your query and not a generic one (“It’s in the syllabus”), then make sure you bring specific information to the conversation.

Use the Appropriate Communication Channels

Be sure you’re using your instructor’s preferred method of communication. If she encourages you to call, then call – just be respectful, and don’t call in the wee hours of the morning! If she asks you to communicate via school email, do so. If you don’t use the proper communication channels, you may stall the conversation.

Be Patient

Online courses are available 24/7. Online instructors are not. If the school promises a 24-hour response time, then be sure you give your instructor a full 24 hours before firing another email.

Be Nice

Professors are people. They don’t like to be yelled at. They don’t like to be called names. They are more willing to work with people who are kind to them. So, be professional and be kind.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to reach out to your professor. Good communication can make the difference between an okay learning experience and a great one.