Tips on Using the Q&A Platform Piazza in the Classroom24 Feb 2014
Managing out-of-class communication can be time-consuming. After having experimented with different approaches to optimizing communication amongst students and myself, I was elected for the UvA Grassroots program to explore the educational Q&A platform Piazza. The post below summarizes the lessons I learned from the project, and shares some valuable tips and tricks if you’d like to try it out yourself (first published in Dutch on the UvA Grassroots blog).
Over the past two and a half years I tutored sophomore Psychology students in executing and reporting empirical research. Given the intensity of the course, many students wished to communicate with the instructor and with one another, even when not in class. This gave two problems. First, communication between students often went through a closed Facebook environment. Because of this, I had no insight into the problems of the students and I wasn’t able to correct incorrect advice from peers. Moreover, it appeared to promote plagiarism. Second, their communication with me often went through email. This time the students didn’t know what their fellow students asked me, and so I sometimes received the same question twice, while some questions could be perfectly answered by the students themselves. It would thus be great if all online communication would be shared with the whole class, such that the pressure on my mailbox would be lowered, and I would be better able to anticipate the problems of my students.
Having sought a solution in the form of a mailing group (even more pressure on my mailbox), the use of a forum on either Turnitin or Blackboard (very unintuitive for most students), and Facebook (not a professional environment), I decided to try out Piazza. Piazza is a Q&A website, designed to provide a platform for teachers and students for online communication. Piazza is free, very accessible, includes a mobile app, and is already used by many universities. In this post I give some pros and cons, and share some tips for teachers who’d like to start using it. On the Piazza website you may also find more benefits, examples, and a demonstration.
- All questions, answers, and discussions are stored on a single spot outside your inbox.
- Accessible to all students and teachers associated with the course.
- No need to answer the same question twice.
- Students help one another, the teacher only intervenes when necessary.
- Private messaging with the teacher.
- Reward outstanding student contributions.
- A platform for discussion that is not restricted to in-class.
- Free to use, including a free mobile app.
- LaTeX Equation Editor to add mathematical formulas to a question.
- Intuitive and accessible to use.
- Create multiple subgroups within a class. The subgroups may only be accessible to some of the students, while the class is still accessible to all students and teachers.
- Statistics (e.g., which student has contributed the most).
- Many students and teachers are unfamiliar with Piazza (unlike email, Blackboard, or Facebook).
- Piazza therefore requires an initial investment of the teacher, both in instruction and in encouragement (see the tips below to ease this process).
- It can come on top of other media (although it may also completely replace email, and may be used as a full-blown learning environment such as a Blackboard).
- Only a fast and proper implementation of Piazza may eliminate the students’ use of closed environments like Facebook.
- Give a plenary introduction to Piazza, show the students how it works, what you can do with it, and how you want them to use it.
- Emphasize that in answering a question they always need to cooperate (and that they must therefore edit their peer’s answer).
- Encourage students to use private messages only if truly necessary.
- Don’t answer questions asked through email, but refer to Piazza (you can also choose to hide you email address from the students).
- Use Piazza to make announcements or distribute material.
- Encourage students to answer one another’s questions, and only intervene if the students can’t come to the correct answer themselves.
- Reward students for their contribution (you may for instance use the buttons ‘good question’, ‘good note’, or ‘good answer’).
- Create Folders for different types of questions.
- Use the Pin feature to put important questions or comments on top of everyone’s list.
- Use the Poll feature, for instance to find out if there’s any additional material the students would like to see covered in a next lesson.
- Make sure you indicate in Piazza’s email settings which emails you want to receive.
- If you’re using subgroups within the class, show the students how they can either ask a question that is only visible to their subgroup, or visible to all students in the class.
Both my students and I were mostly enthusiastic about using Piazza and in future courses I will continue to use it. Since it is a new medium for many, it however requires a small investment. I would thus advise you to seek a medium that best suits your needs. You may for instance compare email, Blackboard, Facebook, Piazza, Edmodo (an alternative to Piazza), and any other option. If Piazza is your final choice, I hope the above tips will help you to keep the investment small and the experience great.