Q&A Applications for Teaching

Over the summer of 2017, I set up a Question & Answer site for the my vector calculus students. The idea is that students with questions benefit from clearly articulating their confusion, and students with answers benefit from rehearsing their knowledge.


I used the free open-source application Question2Answer. There are many different Q&A applications; I used Question2Answer since it supported LaTeX. In addition to the base site, I also used the Closed Site plugin, which requires a user to log in before viewing the site, and the Q2A MathJax plugin, which enables LaTeX functionality. The primary change I made to the code itself was to removed the "downvote" button, with the aim of increased participation.

With the exception of myself and the two TAs, who were registered moderators on the site, all accounts were anonymized, each of the form "user###". Students had the ability to change their usernames, which approximately a quarter chose to do.

The greatest challenge was to induce students to use the site initially. To this end, ten percent of their grade consisted in obtaining at least 20 on-site points. This can be quickly accomplished, either by posting a total of four questions or answers, or by upvoting ten times. Additionally, three percent of extra credit was advertised for the top five users with the most points and the top two users with the most "best answers". To discourage manipulative or uncooperative usage, students must choose a "best answer" to at least half of their questions to qualify for the extra credit.

Points were awarded as follows,

Action   Points
upvote   1
your post upvoted   3
post a question or answer   5
select a best answer   5
your answer selected as best   20

To encourage sustained use, for the first two weeks students could upvote a maximum of two posts per hour.

In the end, there were a total of 377 questions, 556 answers, and 322 comments.

Reception from Students

The site was overwhelmingly popular. A course survey with 59 respondants of 86 total students shows that the typical student found the application both useful and enjoyable. Moreover, the majority of respondants indicated that they "would rather use the Q&A site than email the instructor or TAs" to answer their questions.

Concluding Thoughts

My experience with the site was thoroughly positive. I did not receive any duplicated emails inquiring about course material or policies, and I was able to quickly and easily address widespread questions.

Benefits to the student

  1. The nature of the site ensures that students generally receive quick responses to their questions.
  2. As the accounts are by default anonymized, there is minimal social risk associated with asking questions or hazarding answers.
  3. The site also facilitates in-person collaboration, since students can use it to form study groups or ask if anyone is working nearby.

Benefits to the instructor and TAs

  1. Instructors and TAs can quickly identify points of confusion, and plan their lessons and sections accordingly.
  2. In contrast with email, it is easy to conduct a mathematical exchange on a LaTeX-enabled Q&A site.
  3. Also in contrast with email, a response to any student is a response to every student who has the same question.

Objection 1. The site will propogate errors.
Response. This is true of any form of collaborative study. In this case, however, all misinformation is subject to the mass scrutiny of the class and is readily identified by competing responses.

Objection 2. Students will abandon the site after obtaining the minimum number of points.
Response. Though a certain amount of credit incentive is needed to get students on the site to begin with, experience shows that the overwhelming majority continue to use it as a resource well after satisfying the associated requirements.