Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates


Back in January 2012 I wrote about Piazza, the free online Q&A site used by instructors for teaching. Since then, Piazza has grown even more popular with STEM subjects. Piazza reports that over 1000 schools and 300,000 students have participated in online discussions using their system.

Instructors find advantage in using Piazza over other public online discussion forums because they have some control over aspects of the course like class signup, anonymous posting and private posting (only to instructors). For students, Piazza offers a modern-looking, intuitive user-interface.

When compared to the online discussion forums of learning management systems, our UW CS and Math students regularly ask to use Piazza instead when they have used it before. They state they like the way it looks and that answers to their questions are easy to find. Piazza is not alone in pinning answers to a question posting, but it is a successful method of presentation especially when combined, as it is, with a wiki-like editor for multiple answers and on-going discussion that also allows mathematics notation and media input.

Reasons to use discussion systems like Piazza

As described in the previous post on Piazza, reasons to use Piazza include

  • students find the system intuitive to use
  • instructors and students like the wiki Q&A format where both can create a common answer to a question
  • it is collaborative – students are expected to answer each other’s questions, learning from their peers and allowing more questions to be answered in large classes
  • instructors can monitor discussions and follow up important points in lectures

A few professors add their own reasons for using Piazza in their own words here. Click on the full story under each short excerpt.

And for further reading on the benefits of online discussions in courses visit the links in the CTE section below.

Piazza since 2012

Some new features have been added to Piazza in the last few years. They include

  • in posts programming code has syntax highlighting
  • group-based discussions – you can make small student groups and limit posts to group members
  • some parts of a Piazza course can be made public (without the need to log into Piazza) eg announcements, notes, general files
  • a Piazza class can be cloned (settings and content can be copied into next term’s class)
  • a post can be copied into another class – useful for seeding a discussion or re-using instructions in a new term
  • Piazza allows connections from learning management system like our UW LMS Desire2Learn without requiring extra student login i.e. a student can follow a link in their Desire2Learn course directly into their Piazza Q&A discussion class without going through the Piazza login page. Note, that such a link between the two systems has not been setup, but this link details how it is done by LMS administrators.

Original features of Piazza include

  • anonymous posts
  • polling feature
  • html editor with math input (LaTeX or math symbol buttons), video and image uploads,
  • a resources page for instructors to post announcements, notes, files, etc
  • a statistics page where instructors can see who is posting and how much posting is taking place

How to get started and where to find help using Piazza

First, visit the UW Piazza course Piazza for University of Waterloo Instructors. It is a playground course where you can try out features and see how a Piazza course operates. To get an account in the course, just send me email.

Read through the Piazza quickstart guide. It is a short 12 page PDF document that includes

  • Tips For a Successful Class on page 7
  • a description of the menus and icons used in the system on pages 8-9

If you are in the CS department then the the folks at the CS Instructional Support Group can help you set up a Piazza course for your class. They have been using Piazza for years. If you are in other parts of the Math faculty or in other faculties, send me email. I’ve set up quite a few Piazza courses and can help you decide if Piazza is right for the purposes you have in mind and guide you through the setup process.

CTE resources about online discussions

The UW Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) has a number of articles about the effective use of online discussions. For example,

And, if you are interested in exploring other online methods of communication consider looking at these CTE posts:

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison
pkates@uwaterloo.ca, x37047

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Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (pkates@uwaterloo.ca)

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