By Patricia Phillips-Batoma

Time is always running out for online instructors, and online instructors are always running out of time. If teaching online is time consuming, this is because the absence of face-to-face contact with students requires instructors to respond to all inquiries in writing. It is for this reason that the very design of an online course needs to take into account a clear time frame for responding to students within the different areas of the course. These different areas include, but are not limited to: 1) e-mail, 2) discussion board, and 3) assignments and exams. Each area requires a different response time frame. Recommendations for setting up a response time frame for each of these three areas of online courses is covered.


E-mail is a form of asynchronous conferencing. However, students and instructors use it differently from the way they use other asynchronous conferencing software, such as bulletin boards or a threaded discussion. Students and instructors instinctively know that an e-mail is the fastest way to contact someone, because it is not necessary for that person to be logged on to the course Web site to view the message. Therefore, e-mail can be used to deal with more urgent problems such as technical difficulties or personal emergencies. Students can also send questions regarding specific aspects of the course, such as a grade received on an assignment or quiz.

Whatever the topic of the e-mail inquiry may be, an instructor should understand that an e-mail indicates that the student is trying to get in touch with him/her as soon as possible. A response given within 24 hours is ideal in this case.

However, on some occasions an instructor may need time to think about the student’s inquiry. In this case, it is best for the instructor to send the student an e-mail acknowledging the question and letting the student know when to expect a response. Let us suppose that an instructor receives an e-mail from a student who is posing a highly theoretical question. All teachers have experienced these “stump” questions, and in a classroom situation it is perfectly appropriate to say, “that’s a good question, but I’ll have to think about how to answer it and get back to you at the next class session.” An appropriate e-mail response could be something like this: “thanks for your very good question. I’m going to take some time to think about it. I’ll get back to you by noon tomorrow.”

…an instructor should let students know that their emails have been received and that he/she will respond to them as soon as possible.

In another scenario, an instructor may simply be too busy with on-campus duties to respond adequately to students’ messages on a particular day. In this case, an instructor should let students know that their messages have been received and that they will respond to them as soon as possible. This could be done by either composing short, friendly messages, or setting up the e-mail account to respond automatically.

Discussion Boards

Unlike email, discussion boards usually involve three or more people and are often organized around specific topics. Discussion boards are integrated in all major LMS platforms. In most cases, instructors divide the discussion area of the course into several smaller, directed discussion topics. For example, an instructor could create four different forums.

Since students are expected to post messages to the different forums, an asynchronous conferencing board is ideally a busy and dynamic area of the course. Therefore, it is neither practical, nor pedagogically sound, for an instructor to respond to all of the postings. This is not practical because it would take valuable time and energy away from other areas of the course. This is not pedagogically sound because discussion boards are areas where students have the opportunity to talk to each other and, in some cases, take charge of discussions.

Although the instructor should not post responses to every post, he or she should log onto the conference at least five days per week and at least once a day.

Although the instructor should not post responses to every message, they should log onto the conference at least five days per week and at least once a day. The instructor can respond to selected individual messages or post a message that synthesizes several messages.

Assignments and Exams

The time frame within which the instructor gives feedback and grades for assignments or exams is different from e-mail and asynchronous conferencing. Moreover, for this area of an online course, the appropriate response time may vary among instructors. However, it is not a good idea to wait more than one week after the due date to grade an assignment. The most important step to take is to let students know when they can expect a grade on an assignment or quiz. The turnaround time for grading assignments could be built into the course design as a general policy. For example, an instructor could state on the syllabus that grades for all assignments and exams will be available one week after the due date or the exam date.

The most important step to take is to let students know when they can expect a grade on an assignment or quiz.

There are several advantages to this type of policy. On the one hand, the consistency of the response time for all submissions avoids confusion and sets up clear expectations. On the other hand, when an instructor waits until the due date to grade all assignments, rather than grading them as they come in, they are likely to be more consistent with grading criteria. If an instructor wishes to set up a different system, for example a two-day turnaround time for assignments and a four-day turnaround time for quizzes and exams, this can also be spelled out in the course policies. In addition, the instructor can remind students of when they should expect a grade on an assignment or an exam by putting this information in the submission message. One such submission message might be: “Thank you for submitting the homework assignment for October 3. You can expect your grade to be available by noon on October 5.” Always set clear and realistic policies for response time in online courses, and communicate these policies to the students. Moreover, integrate this notion of response time into the course design.