Unanswered Student Questions

Last week the Online Learning team held two panel discussions with online students. The consensus? Students love and appreciate their online instructors overall. When pressed to tell us how instructors could improve generally, they mentioned how frustrating it is when they don’t receive timely responses to the questions they ask.

So what is expected of instructors regarding student questions? Section 7.4 of the Online Instructor Handbook states that online instructors are expected to “respond within 24 hours to student questions in the Questions & Conversations (Q&C) discussion board in your classroom (except Sundays).”

A recent study showed nearly 1/3 of the courses we looked into were found to have unanswered student questions. The unanswered questions were found primarily in two locations:

  1. Within the Q&C discussion boards -
    • Typically these questions have been found in Q&C forums from past weeks when boards are left open and students post to a board or thread from a week that is not in the current week.
    • Other times it has been found that some instructors are not subscribing to the Q&C board and therefore are just not aware when questions are being submitted.
  2. In the Instant Messaging tool of I-Learn found in the top navigation bar of I-Learn (see image below).

As we learned more about students not getting responses to their questions, we dug a little deeper and found some interesting information about the role student questions play in the student experience of BYU-Idaho courses.

Correlation between the Q&C board and overall instructor ratings by students

A review of data from Winter semester 2018 found a correlation between the number of words posted by an instructor and the rating students gave those instructors. Although not surprising, we found that instructors who said more, explained more, or provided more details in the Q&C board typically received higher overall ratings by their students. Instructors who said very little in the Q&C boards typically received lower scores from their students.

Additional positive correlations with instructor ratings were found in the Q&C board with the following characteristics:

  • Instructors being personable - sharing opinions, interests, and making comparisons to events in their personal lives.
  • Instructors helping students understand assignments and instructions.
  • Instructors providing guidance on how students are performing in the course.

In other words, students equate responses to questions as instructor presence. Instructors who demonstrate presence by taking the time to respond personally to students receive higher ratings from their students. If the instructor provides more information and details with a friendly, conversational tone, the student is more likely to rate the instructor with high marks. Instructor presence is, of course, not all accomplished in the Q&C boards.  We make ourselves visible in announcements, feedback, notes from instructor among other places.


Although this problem of unanswered questions does not affect all of our students, the number of students impacted is too many, and we must do more to meet these needs. Responding to student questions or ensuring that students receive responses from their peers is a task that falls squarely on the shoulders of the instructor. The Questions and Conversations discussion space is the teacher’s domain. It is not managed by course design. Therefore it is the responsibility of the instructor to:

  • Ensure all questions are responded to within 24 hours (except Sundays)
  • Understand and facilitate the technical aspects of the Q&C boards
  • Communicate clearly and train students where course questions should be asked
  • Be approachable
  • Encourage students to support one another by asking and answering questions publicly
  • You are not necessarily responsible to answer all questions yourself, but you are responsible to ensure that all questions receive an answer.
  • Reserve email communication for private student concerns
  • Respond to all student questions in alignment with the Instructor Standards

We appreciate the efforts you make to enhance the online student experience. This great work couldn’t move forward without your dedication.

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  • Joel,

    Sometimes my students wait until late Saturday night before responding to questions or comments I make on the discussion board.  Because of that, I have to email a response to them if I want to be sure they get my response.  I set up my discussion board so that I am notified when they respond to my posts.  However, if it is late Saturday night when I get the notice they will not know I responded because the board shuts down.  Is there a way for them to get a message on their email as I do, that I responded to them?

  • Since it's already burried deeply in the comments, I'd like to bring the 5 day a week/Saturday email concerns back to the top of the comment thread. Our contracts clearly state 5 out of the 6 days. If the expectation is 6 out of the 7, our instructor contracts (and our pay) need to be adjusted accordingly. Personally, if we're ever required to work Saturdays, I'll have to find other employment. Saturdays are my family days where we go camping and try to get far, far away from the internet and electronics. I work hard M-Friday so that I can enjoy some worry-free quality time with my family. 

    With this said, I don't think there's a big conflict between the 5 day work week and responding to our students.  I set my email automatic out-of-office reply every Friday before I leave for the weekend. Also, I send a weekly wrap-up email to my students reminding them that I'll be back Monday to respond to questions. Technically if students email me Saturday, they're recieving an automatic reply and they know they can expect a detailed answer from me Monday morning. I think this fulfills the "response" requirement well enough. It helps students know they're not being ignored and it gives instructors flexibility to make their 5 days a week M-F (if they choose-- I know some instructors need Saturdays and that's okay. It just shouldn't be the expectation). 

  • Thanks, Joel. Prompt communication makes such a difference in both student success and building relationships. I've started using the Q&C discussion boards as a commonly asked questions area as well. I save common student questions from semester to semester and post them on that board. It's really helped the students find answers to questions they didn't even know they had. Since I always have extra information/clarification there, it also trains my students to check there first when they have questions and then ask if they don't find the answer to their question. It's such a great resource for students and instructors! 

    Here's a picture of how I've personalized my Questions and Conversations board: 


    It's optional, so the students don't have to spend a lot of extra time there; however, if they need the help, it's been nice for them to find immediate answers to their questions. 

    • What a great idea Rachel! This is something you could collect and improve over time. 

  • Thank you so much for providing this valuable feedback from the students. 

  • Thanks fo the information. This is great feedback from the students.

  • Thanks for posting!  This is great to think about.

  • I also try and let the students answer each other's questions. I try to encourage them to do so, but it has not happened. I respond ASAP to prevent the flag.

  • How do you feel about students answering other students questions on the Q&A board?  Sometimes, a student will get to another student's question before I get to it and give a beautiful answer.  Do I just need to shout, "AMEN!"?  ;)

    • I don't think you need to spend a lot of time restating; however, it's good to thank the student for answering the other student and confirm they're correct. Ex. "Thanks, Jenna, for helping Sally. That's just what I would have said. Thank you!"  This little bit of positive re-enforcement makes students want to answer each others questions more and it gives question-asker reassurance that they're getting correct information. 

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