Tips for Online Students: How to Ask a Question

Getting Started

When you are new to online learning there can be a lot to learn, and fast! As an online student you will be taking on some additional responsibilities for your time and your academic work. One of your greatest resources is your instructor. Asking for help or communicating with an instructor can be very intimidating, especially for a new student.

Before You Email

Many times instructors will post important information in the course announcements, the syllabus, or perhaps send out a welcome email at the start of class. Chances are that many of your questions will already be answered there. Be sure to spend some time reviewing your class and the materials right away. You will feel much more at ease with your environment.

How to Ask a Question

Instructors love to help students. We are here to help you succeed! In order to help us help you, we need you to be as specific as possible. If you simply say “I need help” or “I don’t understand” it doesn’t give us much to work with. Begin your email by stating the assignment, unit, or reading that you are working with. Then follow up with the question. Tell your instructor what you don’t understand or what outcome you are looking for.

A Poor Email:

Professor Smith,

I am so confused and I don’t understand what I am supposed to do! Help me!

Student Jones

Unless Professor Smith is a mind reader, chances are he or she doesn’t know either! What are you working on? Where are you in the classroom? What is the obstacle holding you back? In this scenario, your instructor will have to ask you follow up questions for more information, which will only delay you getting the help you need.

A better way to approach the issue:

Professor Smith,

I am having trouble with the Unit 4 discussion. Are the instructions asking for two responses to classmates, or three?

Student Jones

This is very clear and concise. Professor Smith will know how exactly how to respond, meaning you will get a clear answer right away.

Following Up

Most faculty members are quite diligent in responding to student emails right away. However, there are a myriad of reasons you may not get the speedy response you hoped for. The very first thing to do is review your syllabus, the course announcements, and if applicable your instructor’s biography. Look for information on contacting the instructor. Did you use their preferred means of communication? (Note, increasingly the preferred means of communication will be a messaging tool in the classroom and not email.) Is there a stated expectation of how long you should wait before a response?

If there is no expectation outlined in the course materials, wait 48 hours and then you may follow up with your instructor for a response. What you want to avoid here is multiple emails a day, or sending emails hours later asking if your instructor received your message. This is inefficient for both students and instructors.

Instructors as Resources

Remember, your instructor is key to your success. You never have to feel timid or apologize for asking questions. It is our role to support you and help you navigate the course successfully. We want to help you! Asking questions is a great way to enrich your learning experience.