How Instructors are Using a Digital Town Square to Build a Learning Community

Instructors share their experiences using Piazza.

Jacqueline Garnett, CTL Grad Fellow

Three professors, 13 course assistants, 100+ students and 21 lab sections. For Chiamaka Asinugo, a lecturer in WashU’s Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science Department, running large courses like this requires a great deal of coordination.

A steady stream of queries flow in from students during the course: clarifications, course logistics, and conceptual questions. Wading through these questions can be time-consuming for the instructional team and often, what one student asks, another needs to know.

Asinugo needed a better solution than tracking emails and checking in with the instructional team to make sure that student’s questions and concerns were being resolved. For her, Piazza was that solution.

As a learning platform where students can ask and answer questions in a forum-like format, Piazza streamlines communication between students and instructors. It acts as a centralized location, a digital hub, where students can come to ask and answer questions.

In Professor Asinugo’s courses, students act as the first line of defense by responding to each other’s questions in Piazza. They are given space to work through issues collaboratively and when extra help is needed, instructors can step in through a feature to endorse student answers or reply themselves.

Questions–and answers–are public, but they can also be posted anonymously. “They don’t necessarily have to put their name out there if they don’t want to,” Asinugo says, “it’s hard to raise your hand or ask questions in class when everything is so public.” Asinugo has found that this anonymous feature helped students be more open and comfortable to ask questions, no matter how generic or small they may seem.

“Such features empower all students, including those who are more introverted, to ask questions or discuss subjects,” says Athena Tabakhi, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, who has also repeatedly used Piazza in her courses.

Lecturers Chiamaka Asinugo (left) and Athena Tabakhi (right) use Piazza in their courses in the McKelvey School of Engineering.

“At the beginning of each semester, I set up the course on Piazza, and students automatically gain access through Canvas. This integration ensures that accessing Piazza is straightforward for all students” says Tabakhi.

The ability to engage with students as soon as possible has been indispensable for Asinugo as well. “We’ve published the Piazza forum–even before our Canvas course–right when we had students registered. We were able to field questions about what was going to happen in the course” she says. “It’s helped us put things in the syllabus that we weren’t even thinking of.”

For both instructors, students’ reactions to the platform have generally been positive.

“Based on my experience, students appreciate Piazza” Tabakhi says. “I make an effort to respond to their posts as quickly as possible, sometimes within a few minutes, which they find very satisfactory.” Dr. Tabakhi attributes her responsiveness in part to the notification features on Piazza, which relieves her email burden and makes it difficult for questions to go unnoticed or unanswered.

Topic folders, tags, and an intuitive interface all make Piazza’s platform an accessible space for students to find the information they need.

In this case, what’s convenient for students is convenient for instructors. By leveraging Piazza’s strengths to solve logistical and learning challenges, Asinugo and Tabakhi have been able to deliver their courses more efficiently while also improving the learning experience for their students.

Visit the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Resource Page on Piazza to learn more.