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As college instructors, we always encourage students to ask questions in class or during office hours. But many students with questions do not ask them in class for fear appearing stupid in front of others. They also may not have the time to come to office hours.

Online discussion boards can potentially solve this problem. But these are almost universally pre-populated with questions from the instructor, not the students, typically of the “post once, reply twice” variety. Rather than an instructor-driven approach, we wanted a student-driven solution.

Thus, in 2019 we started a small project to see whether we could improve student engagement outside the classroom using an online chat forum embedded in our learning management system. We chose the Piazza chat space instead of the default discussion forum of our LMS because Piazza provided more tools. Certain feedback can be sped up by using Piazza’s endorse function rather than writing comments. Piazza also provides a statistics report about students’ participation and interactions in the chat space.

The key feature was that Piazza allows students to post their responses anonymously. We encouraged all students to do so to allow those who are normally nervous about asking questions to still contribute to the discussion without being identified. To further motivate students' participation, we designated a portion of the final course grade for completing chat space tasks that we named “star point activities.” We implemented these activities in face-to-face elementary differential equations and precalculus classes as well as an online, asynchronous elementary differential equations class.

We will now discuss how we implemented star points activities. At the beginning of the semester, students have zero points. The instructor sets goals for how many star points students should earn by certain times in the course schedule, usually around exams. Students can earn star points throughout the semester by attempting various participation activities in the online chat space. We allowed them to receive star points for the following:

We created clear grading criteria to evaluate student contributions to the chat space. The rubric allowed students to use two attempts to make corrections to their submissions. Our intention here was to enable students to learn from their mistakes. We kept the rubric simple so that students could easily understand the criteria and to make it easy on instructors for grading. Students could receive six, four, or two star points for a given activity, with six being a 100 percent on the assignment. A student who scored a four or a two, however, could redo the activity to address instructor feedback. An example of our rubric for grading mind maps and short notes appears in the table below.

Performance LevelCriteria
Six Star Points
  • Mind Map/Short Note is neat and clearly organized.
  • Mind Map/Short Note covers all major topics from the previous week's material.
Four Star Points
  • Mind Map/Short Note is neat and clearly organized.
  • Mind Map/Short Note is missing one or two important concepts from course material.
  • Mind Map/Short Note contains one or two mistakes or misunderstandings.
  • A combination of the above two points is seen.
  • Students who fall into this category have the option to redeem lost star points by adding the missing concepts or correcting the mistakes (or both) for the full six star points.
Two Star Points
  • Mind Map/Short Note has no clear structure or is illegible.
  • Mind Map/Short Note is missing more than two important concepts from the course material.
  • Mind Map/Short Note contains more than two mistakes or misunderstandings.
  • Students who fall into this category have the option to redeem lost star points by adding the missing concepts or correcting the mistakes (or both) for the full six star points.

At the end of the semester, we sent out a survey to gain insight on students' perceptions of the activities and the activities’ helpfulness. We found that most students thought the grading criteria were fair. Students reported that the most beneficial star point activities were the weekly mind maps and short notes and the exam review questions. Meanwhile, they regarded reading posts from peers and responding to their posts as being least beneficial. We hoped to generate meaningful discussion among students in Piazza through our star point activities. Unfortunately, there was fairly limited peer-to-peer interaction. Part of this was probably because all responses were anonymous to students, even their own, which made it difficult for them to track where discussion happened. We could always see identifying information with the posts.

An important lesson we learned is to think about the workload students have with other assignments in the class. The precalculus classes had a fairly intense homework regimen in addition to the star point activities. The differential equations class had a lighter homework load. Therefore, there was a significant difference in students’ perceptions of the activities between two courses. We recommend being mindful about student workload levels if you are interested in implementing this strategy in your courses. For our part, we found these activities—especially the weekly summaries—a refreshing teaching experience that allowed us to feel more connected to our students.

Nadun Dissanayake Kulasekera Mudiyanselage, PhD, is an assistant professor of mathematics at Appalachian State University, and Jacob J. Blazejewski, MS, is a PhD candidate in applied mathematics at Michigan Technological University.