Piazza by Carolyn Anderson
Accounting is basically an applied math class. Students learn some accounting concepts and then apply them to a specific problem. My preferred method of teaching was to drill on vocabulary and concepts, give homework, then check the students’ comprehension with tests. In this context I had never found discussion assignments very useful for teaching accounting classes.
Last semester however, the class I was preparing to teach was different. I would be teaching Accounting Principles II as a virtual class, often challenging for accounting students who want to see demonstrations of how to work the problem and then talk with their peers about how the concepts work. The most challenging part was that the class was to be taught in eight weeks. I have successfully taught eight week classes to graduate students, who have already mastered the basics of “learning to learn”, but undergraduates often do not have that skill. So trying something new to enhance the undergraduate students’ learning made sense. The Learning Technologies team suggested a new (for me) Blackboard building block called Piazza. Piazza is a question and answer platform designed to help students study together and work through course problems. It is especially useful for math-based courses, as it had a mathematical typeface, called LaTeX, that allows students to write formulas and equations. But best of all, the program is built in a wiki style that allows students to collaborate and allows the instructor complete editorial control over the content.
I decided to give it a try. I decided to require the class to discuss one of the assigned homework problems for each chapter. The purpose for this joint work was to get the students to know each other, and to encourage them to learn from each other. Additionally, by writing about the topic, theoretically, their understanding of it would increase. Because the course was short, and the students already had plenty of work to do with homework and bi-weekly tests, I decided to limit the discussion assignments. I put them into teams, and assigned each team two discussion posts during the semester. The posting team would work the problem, and explain the concept. The remainder of the class was required to like the individual post that was most helpful to them in understanding the concept.
As any good instructor knows, engaging students in the subject is the key to increasing their understanding. So the question becomes, did this tool increase the students’ engagement in the topic? Piazza generates a student participation report so you can see who frequently asks, answers, and edits, as well as who prefers to just use other contributions as a resource. The statistics showed that there were 252 unique contributions for this brief eight-week class. Naturally, some students are more familiar with this approach than others, and used it more often. One student had 62 posts for the semester, but all students contributed. When the students got familiar with the format, they began asking each other for help on questions that were not part of the discussion assignment. (I made it clear that working together on all homework was acceptable. There would be plenty of opportunity to assess their comprehension in the bi-weekly tests, which were individual work.)
The students liked the format. In a brief survey near the end of the eight-week period, 83% of the respondents said the feature was great, and that they used it frequently. Likewise, 67% of the respondents really liked the help they received from their classmates. There is a lot more I could share about the features of Piazza, but I believe this brief introduction should spur your curiosity to learn more about the possibilities of this social media-like feature of our existing Blackboard LMS. Give it a try!