S.M.M. Tahaghoghi - How to ask staff good email questions (and increase your chances of getting good responses)

This page was started by Michael Harris - I currently maintain and update it

Some questions to consider before writing an email:

Academic staff receive an enormous amount of email every day. I have had days where I've received over 100 (non spam) emails, and others are likely to receive even more. Emails that are clear, concise and well thought out are much easier to answer and therefore more likely to be answered quickly and with the reply you want. Below are a few things to consider when trying to get your email answered first.

This page focuses specifically on email, but applies equally to composing questions using other media, such as newsgroups and forums.

General - include everything relevant and nothing else

Don't ask the same question in different places. You shouldn't email your question and ask the same question on a forum. This just creates more work, and makes it more likely you'll miss the answer.

Include enough of the previous emails so that the email makes sense on its own. This saves having to find old emails to remember what the conversation was about.

Delete parts that are no longer relevant or that have been dealt with. Delete multiple signatures too.

Start a new email for each new topic. There's no better way to get your email lost than to send it with an old subject line.

Subject - say what the email is about

Use short, informative subject lines. The subject should give some indication as to the contents of the email. It should be easy to see what the mail is about without having to go to the body of the message, even later in the semester.

Start the subject line with the course code or name, especially if the staff member is working on multiple subjects.

Do not use IMPORTANT! or URGENT! Staff are generally very busy and will always attempt to answer emails as quickly as possible. In fact, emails with unhelpful subject lines, even if they are IMPORTANT!, are often left until last.

Good examples:

Subject: [cosc1300] Apache installation - make failure
Subject: [DML] SAX parsing error


Be precise and clear. Get to the point quickly.

Technical questions

Briefly outline the problem you are having.

You should show evidence that you have tried to understand why the problem is happening. Briefly outline what you have done to try to fix the problem, including evidence that you have read required readings, read newsgroups and forums, searched the web if applicable.

Include all the information you think is relevant.

Administrative questions

Briefly outline the issue.

Be clear about what you are asking.

Again, include all the information that might be relevant.


Always include your name, student number and computer science username. This makes it easier for staff to find information that might be relevant to your question.


[1] How To Ask Questions The Smart Way Eric Steven Raymond
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