“Please send a photo”


One recent email exchange related to someone else’s order for running shoes, sent to me in error

I’ve recently had cause to contact three different companies about inadequacies in their service. The reasons for doing so in each case were very different, but there was a common thread to their replies: “Please send a photo of the [relevant item]”. When the third request came in, I started to see a pattern and this set me ruminating on why they were adding this extra step to dealing with my query.

And then it struck me, that this was exactly the reason – it was an extra step. It is part of a filtering process. It is easy enough for all and sundry to fire off email requests willy-nilly. As a mechanism to weed out the serious appellant from the time-waster there needed to be an additional hurdle. [I have vague memories from school history lessons that monasteries used to offer a similar process. Potential novices were never admitted at their first attempt, they were required to return on several occasions before securing entry into the monastic life.]

I mention this here, on my education blog, because I actually operate a similar system when it comes to requests from students. If you are involved in academia I am sure you recognise emails, particularly as exams loom, that go something like:

  • “Hiya, please can you go through your lecture 4 with me again, I didn’t quite understand it”.

Such invitations are easy to fire off, but hard to fulfil. With the best will in the world you cannot start reruns of specific lectures for individual students when there are 350 in the cohort – you’d never get anything else done.

And so I apply a series of incremental filters, a triage scheme of sorts, to reduce the rate of applications to a manageable number.

Step 1: “Have you listened to the lecture again on Panopto?” – As I have noted elsewhere, I am an enthusiast for lecture capture. The opportunity to check something that you didn’t really catch during the live session is one of the strengths of the system. So my first response is to see whether my correspondent has sought clarification from the recording.

Step 2: “Can you be more specific about the concept you didn’t understand?” – Asking the student for clarity on the nature of their difficulty helps them to sharpen their focus and direct my time to the real need rather than going over things that they already understand.

Step 3: “Tell me what you think the answer is, then I’ll tell you if you are correct” – Finally I turn the question back onto them and ask the student to suggest a solution to their query. If they follow through on this, I then tell them if they are correct and, if not, I explain what the answer should have been and why I think they might have got it wrong.

Is it wrong to apply this “triage” system? I don’t think that it is. Granted one of the purposes, as stated above, is pragmatic – it is a mechanism to limit the number of requests that are fired in my direction (and some correspondence does terminate once you’ve bounced the initial query back to its sender). But I do believe this is also an example of good pedagogy.

My series of steps points the student initially to a source where I know the information can be found. I am then encouraging them to engage with that material in a way that clarifies the nature of their request, and then I am giving them opportunity to think what the solution might be before either confirming that they have, in fact, understood it, or I offer a targeted answer to the specific issue that remains unresolved.


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