If your students are like mine, they do a lot of their work outside my view; at home, on weekends, etc. But as they work they sometimes get stuck. They get questions for which they need the answers in order to continue. Sometimes it is a long time before the next class period or office hour.

Suppose that you would like to be able to answer their questions as they arise, but without disadvantaging other students who may have the same question but didn't think to ask. Sometimes, in fact, a student finds an inconsistency in something you said or gave them, and needs a correction before they can continue.

What tools and mechanisms do you find useful for letting students get necessary answers, at times you are not in class or office hours? I'm looking for actual solutions, not guesses about what might work or which make someone's life (mine) miserable. I'm pretty sure that giving out my cell phone number fails on too many levels to consider.

  • $\begingroup$ "Flip" the classroom. All readings, etc. are to be done out of class. Use your LMS (or a free shell hosted by a vendor like Canvas) to host a discussion for questions/answers related to readings so concepts, etc can get clarified. Students should then come to class time ready to work on labs/projects, where they can get immediate help from both their peers and you the instructor (or TA or whatever other role is available). $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Nov 1 '17 at 16:38

Threaded discussion forums allow everyone to see all questions and answers and to post questions and receive answers at any time that you find convenient to check in and update. I have used this in online teaching before. It works very well.

Actually, I don't know of anything else that does or would work. I would love to hear about other possibilities.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It would be great if you could expand that a bit. What tool or site do you use to manage the discussions? $\endgroup$ – Buffy Oct 13 '17 at 17:44

In my opinion, Moodle is a great tool to manage lesson-related things. Usually, the school IT department installs Moodle (which is free and open-source) on a central server and makes it available for teachers to use.

To start, you set up a course for you and your students. The access to a course can be limited (for example using a registration key you hand out in a lesson) so only authorized persons can view the course contents.

Each course provides a discussion forum which can be used for course participants (students and teachers) to ask and answer questions. You can set up an email notification for new forum posts, with which I've made good experiences.

Furthermore, Moodle has a lot of other interesting features that could come in handy:

  • Distributing material: In a course, you can create sections containing links, files, images and formatted text. This can be used to create a place where students can look up lesson contents after the lesson or to distribute links and resources during a lesson. The sections can be hidden, if you don't want to show everything at once.
  • Assignments: Moodle offers a function for students to hand in assignment results (as files) which can be evaluated by the teacher
  • Polls: Using the "choice activity", you can create polls
  • A lot more features sounding promising I haven't tested yet: Wikis, quizzes, chats... (a list of features can be found in the Moodle documentation, further extension is possible using plugins)

Learning Management Systems

I agree that Moodle (and specifically the forum feature) may be the optimum solution, but not all institutions have this facility available. Another similar option that is free and easy to set up is Edmodo or Easyclass. Both are easy to set up and to share materials, as well as accept student uploads. They are also FREE :) and you are up and running in literally minutes.

All three of these options are "teacher-centric". Something that is quite popular with MOOCS is a facebook page. I once got a reply to a question that was holding me up, from two people on the other side of the world- it was 0300 in Ireland, and I got to go to bed by 0330.

Students helping others

Suggest or ask for student-leaders in the class. Maybe they can add it to their resume- those with a lot of answers are effectively acting as teaching assistants? The best way to learn is to teach. In any case, it would be very much "student-centric" and self-managed allowing you to spend less time answering questions outside of class.

Student Initiative

The students may elect to set one up themselves, and offer peer-support to members- maybe you could be a member but it takes the onus off you to answer all questions. In many ways, it is better if they help each other, as they would all benefit in my opinion.

Teacher Guidance

From my experience of student questions, either in-class or online, the question one person asks is often in the minds of others as well, but for various reasons they are reluctant to ask. Perhaps offer a reward for "Question of the month" (SO guidelines being applied) or something to encourage question asking? Hey, why not an "answer of the month as well? It could simply be a printout, or something simple.

Any of the options above would provide the facility that you need. Good luck!


I try to give them as many options as possible, without it becoming too much of pain for me to handle.

Here's what I've currently got working.

Slack Trying it out this year. Originally was thinking it would be a good way for the class to talk, sort of like the Facebook Groups in one of the other answers. Didn't really work so well for that. Only a few students are actively using it. But a few do and it works really well. I've got the Slack app on my phone so I'll get buzzed if someone messages me.

Canvas We're using Canvas on our campus and it's easy for students to message me through that. This is where most students contact me outside of class. Like Slack, I've got the Canvas app on my phone.

I post to the discussion boards in our Canvas class, but students very rarely respond and even more rarely start their own discussions.

Email Very few students email me, although it's common for parents to email. I've probably only had one or two students email me this year.

I do make a point at the beginning of the year that if they need me to help the only times I'm always available is during class and after school tutorials. I may respond outside of that, but it's not guaranteed.

And of the 120 or so students I have this year, there are only about 10 that have contacted me outside of school hours. None of these are very intrusive, and they're all pretty easy to ignore if I'm doing something else.

  • $\begingroup$ If a student asks a question using one of these mechanisms, do all the other students automatically see it, and your answer? $\endgroup$ – Buffy Oct 20 '17 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ That's the reason I tried Slack this year. I thought that having a public space for questions would work better than it has. Only a few students ask me questions on Slack, and they typically DM me instead of posting publicly. If it's a good question though I'll post my response on the public side so that everyone can see it. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Nutt Oct 20 '17 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ Try to "train" your students early to ask on a discussion things they'd ask in class in front of other students. Only reason to message individually is if it relates to grades or other private matters. $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Nov 1 '17 at 16:40

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