Why I No Longer Schedule Meetings with Students Over Email (Case #1 of Putting Systems Thinking to Practice)

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In a previous post, I talked about the power of systems to simplify recurring tasks in our jobs as professors.

In that post I mentioned that we can work to remove bottlenecks that unnecessarily slow down the completion of tasks. Here’s one such task that faces major bottlenecks: scheduling appointments.

calendar

A certainty in our lives is the fact that students will need to make appointments with us. In addition to meeting with students about class projects, I’m also an academic advisor and advisor to student capstone projects. Needless to say, students are wanting to schedule meeting with me fairly regularly.

The non-systematic way of scheduling student appointments:

In the old days, I didn’t have an effective system for scheduling appointments.  It went something like this. I put my email address on my syllabus and told students to email me to schedule an appointment. So I’d get a long, detailed email that I’d have to comb through before a student got to the simple fact that they wanted to schedule a meeting with me. Or, I’d get some kind of cryptic email about an appointment. I’d respond by telling them my available office hours and that if they couldn’t come by then,to let me know some times they were available. For those who couldn’t make my office hours, we’d go back and forth until a common time was identified. During all of this, a lot of time was wasted. I had to look over my calendar and think about when I was available and when I wanted to hold a meeting.  Then I had to suggest it to the student. And then read their response email and program the finalized time onto my calendar if a mutual time was found. And then I’d respond to confirm the meeting.. If no mutual time was found, we went back and forth like this until something was settled on.  You know this frustrating dance. Think of how many unnecessary decisions are being made here, how much time is wasted for both you and the student?

A Simple System for Scheduling Appointments

At the start of this school year, I decided to try something new. I found a free online meeting scheduling tool that integrates with my Google Calendar.

The tool I use is YouCanBook.me but there are many other tools that are very similar.

How it works:

After connecting my Google Calendar, I programmed what days and times I am available into YouCanBook.me.  For example, I don’t want to take student appointments before 10am or after 5pm. And I don’t take student appointments on Fridays since that is my research day. Note: My Google Calendar has all of my classes and appointments programmed onto it, so students can’t make appointments during those times.

While the free version of YouCanBook.me gives you less control over your availabilities, I’ve managed just fine by scheduling a recurring event on my calendar for lunch time when I don’t want to be bothered.

When someone makes an appointment, it syncs to my Google Calendar automatically and I get an email reminder (you can turn these off if you like). Thus, that block of time is no longer available on my calendar and it no longer shows up as available on YouCanBook.me.

Here’s a look at my schedule for one week. This is exactly what someone would see if they were trying to book an appointment with me:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

With YouCanBook.me, you get a unique URL that you share with people so they can schedule appointments. So, I put it on my syllabus and course management site. And I tell students at the beginning of the school year that if they want to make an appointment with me, this is the only way. I tell them that if they send me an email trying to book an appointment, I’ll reply with a template email telling with the URL telling them how to book an appointment with me.

How It’s Worked:

I probably spent an hour setting up this tool before the start of the semester during a peaceful Friday afternoon.

I’ve had dozens of students schedule meeting with me this semester using this tool. I estimate I’ve saved a few hours of time that would have been spent going back and forth during a busy work day trying to schedule a meeting. And that is just in about 1/2 of a semester’s time. So I’ve already recouped the time I put in. And I can use this tool for years to come.

In addition to class-related student appointments, we recently had our 2 week advising period  where I had to meet with about 30 students over the course of two weeks to advise them on what classes to take next semester. I used YouCanBookMe for this as well and it was wonderful.

And of course, you can use tools like YouCanBook.me to schedule any type of meeting. I’ve used it to schedule appointments with folks on campus who’ve wanted to schedule a phone or in person meeting.

Considerations:

The number one thing I was concerned about when I switched to an appointment booking tool was losing control over my time. When someone emails you to schedule an appointment, you might be available at a time but simply don’t want to meet. So you don’t offer that time period for the meeting. With a booking scheduling tool, the person can see all the times you are available that aren’t busy with events on your calendar.

I thought I would find that really annoying. But, it’s a compromise I haven’t really been bothered by. Yes, there have been a few times that students have scheduled appointments when I wish they hadn’t. But, no big deal.

If you want to mark off times on your calendar when you don’t have a meeting or aren’t teaching class yet you simply don’t want someone to book an appointment during that time, schedule something on Google Calendar at that time. For example, I schedule a lunch time on my Google Calendar. But you could also schedule private time for grading or for any other reason.

Lastly, sometimes you need to plan a little ahead so someone doesn’t book an appointment at a time when you won’t be on campus.  If I know I have a doctor’s appointment, I’ll mark enough time before and after on my calendar to account for the commute.

In summary, an appointment booking tool is a great example of a simple system to deal with a recurring task: scheduling student appointments. It helps you save time and mental energy and puts you in control.

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