Student Anonymity

One of the most successful parts of my class this fall (Econometrics with about 150 students) was the Piazza online discussion board. I’ll be writing more about Piazza soon as I systematically document the huge amount I’ve learned teaching during the semester, but today I want to focus on one aspect of Piazza. By default, Piazza allows students to post questions anonymously. Their fellow students don’t know who they are and neither do I. This sometimes led to mildly annoying posts like these:

I had another student notice the “author” of a one of their lab assignments (posted as a Word .doc file) was someone they hadn’t heard of, and they speculated that maybe I had pirated my copy of Microsoft Office from them! In case you’re curious, my copy of Office is perfectly legal. And if you’re really curious, here’s my public response to the student.

Getting feedback in a big class is hard because you don’t build personal relationships with each student. I’ve found that even the most annoying comments can provide useful feedback. For example, I ended up agreeing that True/False questions are difficult to write well, and decided not to put any on the final exam.

The vast majority of the posts on Piazza were honest questions about the course material. Almost everyone chose to post anonymously, and I believe many students would have abstained had they not had the option. Is there such a thing as a stupid question? Well, yes. Do I still want to answer them? Well, yes. I don’t want my students living in fear of being judged, and I want to know when at least some students aren’t grasping seemingly basic concepts. If one student is asking, it means several more probably have the same question.

Perhaps the nicest thing about anonymity on Piazza is that I can get compliments and know I’m not just being buttered up for a grade: