“Easy does it”

A Berkeley economics professor on why Piazza’s intuitive ease of use is key for him and his students

Professor Ron Lee
How is Piazza different from other tools you use?
I’ve been using iclickers for seven or eight years, and that’s a technology that takes a lot of time. It can also go wrong, and it’s a big nuisance when it does. I have a part-time person hired just to do the record-keeping! But Piazza is not like that at all. It’s largely invisible. You make a few decisions when you set it up and then it’s pretty straightforward—not time-consuming, energy-draining, anything like that.
Were you worried about trying another new technology?
Well, here at Berkeley we’re close to Silicon Valley, so we’re used to trying new things. But I was a little bit worried about being flooded with emails and notifications. It just hasn’t turned out that way at all, though. Piazza has been totally nonintrusive. I was able to choose how frequently I receive emails—I chose every four hours or something. So I very much like that feature.
Tell me about how you use it in your classes.
I teach a large, upper division undergraduate economics class called Economics and Demography. I have students from a variety of disciplines: Econ majors, demography and sociology students, and a lot from molecular cell biology or electrical engineering. So it's a very mixed group. And because it’s such a big class, it’s not very easy to get a discussion going. But Piazza has been quite successful at doing just that. A couple of weeks before the midterm and final, especially, students begin to look at the material in a very careful and critical way and post questions and comments. Before, I might have had twenty students lined up outside my door, but that has pretty much stopped. They still come in, just not in exam-time panic, because in the days and weeks before the test they’re posting on Piazza and responding to each other. If a difficult question comes up or I’m not pleased with what I see online, I’ll respond myself. But I’m not very active unless I see a particular problem.
So you deliberately hold back a little so that students can enable each other’s learning?
Yes. My TAs and I used to think we were being virtuous by giving quick answers, but now we let it ferment for a while. I see Piazza as facilitating students answering each other’s questions. They’re from different fields, different departments, and often they don’t know anyone else in the class. I think it impoverishes the learning environment if students don’t talk to other students. Piazza makes it very easy to get a discussion going.
How do students use the platform outside of exam time?
Sometimes they ask deep or politically difficult questions, and because they have time to think, there is some discussion. I’d like to see it used even more in that way. One big advantage to Piazza is that even if you’re shy or afraid to speak in front of a whole bunch of students, you might not be afraid to make a comment online.
Do you give students any incentive to participate?
When someone is close to the margin, Piazza participation can move that person up to a higher level. I think it’s good to make it part of the grading in at least a modest way, because in my experience students respond disproportionately to the tiniest little incentives. I also mention now and then in class that an interesting question came up on Piazza and was left unresolved. Then we can discuss it. Other than that, participation really takes care of itself. Students seem to use it quite heavily.