Adventures in Online Learning: Communicating with your Professors

When you are taking a class online or in any way remotely, figuring out a good and consistent communication method is key. As a professor, I’ve often found that students will often ask me questions before, during, or after class. They do this more often than they email me and far more often than they visit my office hours. Taking a class online does not always allow this same kind of regular access. In short, you will need to figure out the best way to contact your professors in order to get a timely response.

The best way to contact your professors is to figure out what their preference is. Common examples of contact include (but are not limited to):

  • Email
  • Online learning platform (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.) internal email
  • Online learning platform discussion board
  • Phone

You want to figure out which of these methods the professor prefers to interact with students in order to know which platform they are consistently checking. If, for example, you are asking important questions on a discussion board thread, and your professor is only paying close attention to email, your question will likely go unanswered.

An important note in this regard: if a professor prefers that you phone them, you need to actually do this. As a millenial myself, I am sympathetic to the aversion to actually speaking with others on the phone. I would 100% rather send an email than make a phone call. However, professors from other, older generations may prefer this form of communication, and like it or not, you need to respect that or risk not getting the important clarifications that you need.

The best way to determine how a professor wants to be contacted is to check out the syllabus or course information page on the online learning platform. Most good professors will tell you right on that page what format they want you to use when contacting them. If, for whatever reason, they have not indicated their preferred contact preference, a short email to their university email address inquiring is perfectly appropriate.

Why you should ask: Professors are often assigned many students in a given semester. When I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, I routinely had 120+ students that I was overseeing across my classes each semester. At larger universities with large lecture courses, this number may be significantly higher. Fielding a large number of student concerns means that inevitably there will be a very large volume of communication that a professor is expected to keep pace with, presenting communication fatigue. There were days when I would literally do nothing but answer emails with student questions for an entire afternoon (particularly when an assignment was coming due) and I taught all in person classes! For professors who have not had much experience teaching online in the past, managing this level of communication is going to be difficult. Funneling your questions through to the preferred communication stream will be critical in ensuring that your communication is seen and answered.

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