Teaching and Learning with Piazza

Do you see the same student  questions over and over on email? Would you like to extend student discussion beyond the classroom? If so, Piazza can help. Read on for an overview of Piazza's functions, recommendations for using it effectively, and videos on how to get started.

Features of Piazza

  • Piazza is integrated within Canvas, supported by ITS, and available to all U-M instructors free of charge.
  • Piazza supports organized online discussions and Q&A that students can access 24/7.
  • Students can comment on answers or post follow-up inquiries.
  • Students can edit questions and answers wiki-style.
  • Instructors can respond to questions and endorse a student's answer.
  • There's a LaTeX editor for equations and support for multimedia.
  • Tags facilitate targeted searches.
  • Analytics for student usage help instructors assess participation.

Classroom Challenges Solved Through Piazza

Faculty used Piazza in diverse, and sometimes unexpected, ways to address teaching and learning challenges specific to their courses.

Challenge #1: Handling lots of email Q&A

Amy Gottfried manages large volumes of student questions generated in Chem 230. Says Gottfried, "Piazza streamlines questions, putting them all in one spot and making them easily accessible to students. It also allows students to answer questions, learn from one another, and collaborate on answers." Gottfried organizes content into searchable folders, which makes it easy for students to find answers. And it reduces email traffic: Gottfried redirects questions she receives on email to Piazza, where other students sometimes answer faster than she can.

Challenge #2: Getting students to participate in online discussions

Robin Queen turned to Piazza for Q&A in a large linguistics course and was pleasantly surprised when students quickly turned it into an online discussion board. They found it a particularly satisfying venue to discuss how course material related to their real life experiences. According to Queen, “It provides a forum for students to interact with one another (and with me and GSIs, but mostly one another) and practice agreeing and disagreeing and working out concepts.”

Challenge #3: Helping students prepare for exams collaboratively

Prior to each exam, Michaela Zint posts a series of questions to Piazza and has students work together in groups to answer them. She agrees to provide feedback as long as they make a good effort to answer, and if they continue to expand on their answer, she continues to provide feedback. Students and instructors can see how questions and answers have been edited through Piazza’s history function. Zint has been pleased by the results. “Because they answered as a group, I think the answers are much better than if they had answered individually. Seeing the questions and my comments to their responses also made the students realize, ‘Whoa—wait. These are a lot harder than I thought they would be,’ motivating them to study more.”

Challenge #4: Including all students in class discussion and tracking participation

Seeking a way for students to share ideas in a course on Dante, especially if they were not comfortable doing so in class, Alison Cornish started out using Piazza as a discussion forum. She soon appreciated its ability to quantitatively track participation by 50-65 students. Qualitative judgments about the validity and thoughtfulness of students’ responses also enter into her calculation of participation grades. “I don’t want to attach a grade to the number of times that you need to participate, but I sometimes bring it up in class and look at the graph with the students so they know that I am looking at it. It’s eye-opening to them that I can see so clearly who stands out as a good citizen.”

Recommendations for Using Piazza

In Winter 2013, CRLT conducted a study evaluating the use of Piazza in ten U-M courses varying in discipline and size. Eleven faculty were interviewed and over 800 students were surveyed. All of the faculty and over two-thirds of students surveyed recommended Piazza for use by others. Based on their experiences, faculty offer the following advice to colleagues interested in using Piazza.

Getting Started with Piazza

  • Create a culture that uses Piazza from the very beginning of the term.
  • Don't assume students are familiar with Piazza. Take time for an in-class orientation to teach students about notifications and settings, address students' questions about use, and troubleshoot issues. This will save you time later on.
  • Lay the groundwork for your use of Piazza early on and clearly set expectations for student participation from the beginning.
  • Think ahead about how you want to implement Piazza pedagogically before the term, including how to organize the use of the Piazza site regarding folders and tags. Learn how to use the analytics before making the commitment to students or to yourself regarding how Piazza will fit into student participation grades. 
  • Decide (and share) how quickly you will respond to questions, and encourage students to search previous posts for answers to their questions.
  • The editing process for student answers is not straightforward in humanities and social science courses with open-ended questions. Think carefully about norms for how students should approach editing each others' answers and how you will give feedback, especially in contexts where answers are unlikely to be simply right or wrong.
  • Don't overload students with IT tools, especially if the tools duplicate pedagogical functions. Avoid multiple IT avenues for asking and answering questions.
  • Go to the Piazza support page for any additional help needed with getting started.

During the Term

  • To reap the full benefits of course management, have a clear policy about not answering questions regarding course logistics or content via email.
  • Be consistent in your frequency of use and your share of the online exchange. Use the tool consistently throughout the term.
  • When using Piazza as a discussion forum, give students credit for contributing.
  • To increase student motivation, "close the loop" by using Piazza contributions to inform the emphasis of lectures or by explicitly referencing Piazza contributions during class.

Key Questions about Piazza

Will Piazza save time compared to email Q&A?

Not necessarily. Although you'll spend less time answering the same question over and over, it can be challenging in large courses to keep up with the volume of posts and student expectations for quick responses.

Is Piazza useful for small courses?

It can be valuable as a discussion tool, but for simple Q&A, students in smaller courses, or courses that offer other means of posting questions, were less eager to use Piazza.

Can Piazza be used for open-ended questions where there is no clear answer?

Yes, it works well for open discussions, but humanities and social science faculty found the option to mark a student answer as "good" less useful for open-ended questions.

How does Piazza compare to other online discussion or Q&A tools?

Piazza's features overlap with some other tools available to U-M instructors, such as Discussions  and Chat in Canvas. The ability to use tags to organize content and to endorse student responses with one click are key features that distinguish Piazza. If you'd like to discuss which tool is the best fit for your course, schedule a consultation. In case you are wondering about the students' perspective of Piazza, Jessica Wong has a great blog post describing the transition from skeptical to pleased at its usefulness in the classroom (despite the instructor's continuing to call it "Pizzaz").

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