Experimenting with Yellowdig in a Biochemistry Course (with Some Unexpected Results)

Contributed by CTL Faculty Associate, Laura Almstead, Plant Biology; Nutrition & Food Sciences

An introductory biochemistry course isn’t the first class you’d think of when considering classes where a discussion board could be used. This is a course I’ve taught almost every fall for the last ten years. It’s undergone multiple, major “renovations” over the years and, this year, the main goals of my changes were to promote peer instruction, increase retention of the material, and better emphasize the relevance of what we discuss to their future educational and career goals. A class discussion board could potentially help me achieve all three. Let’s try it, I thought. If it’s a flop, we’ll drop it and figure out how to readjust assessments. It ended up being far from a flop.

My experiences last year were what sparked the first of my goals – promoting peer instruction. Open-ended class discussion questions, group problem-solving, and iClicker questions had been part of the course right from the start, so students worked with each other, at least some, in every class. Last year, I taught the class using a mixed delivery modality, and majority of students chose to attend remotely. I struggled to get them to engage with the material in class, and students seemed to struggle much more to grasp the material. This was in stark contrast to my introductory biology course, run remotely, where the Teams chat nearly blew up every time I posed a question and students were as successful compared to prior years. Both classes, however, struggled more with iClicker questions in an environment where they couldn’t talk to their classmates. Thus, my experiences teaching remotely reinforced the importance of having students engage with the material in class and peer instruction.

The biochem course this year was set up so that Yellowdig contributions and in-class iClicker questions both counted towards the engagement component of the assessment. Yellowdig posts (40 words minimum) could be questions, important points (e.g. answers to follow-up questions posted for each class; tables, lists, or diagrams summarizing material), or extensions/applications (e.g. related videos or articles). The word count minimum for comments was set a bit higher (60 words), and students were encouraged to answer their classmates’ questions, add additional information related to someone’s post, or explain why they found an extension/application especially interesting or helpful. Students could make up for missed iClicker questions by creating an extra post or comment that week, or contribute more on some weeks so they could take a week off during a “crunch” week in other courses. A majority of students hit their Yellowdig points goal several weeks before the class ended…and most kept right on going.

Day one, I told the students that the success of our Yellowdig discussion board was up to them. They could use it to ask questions, motivate them to answer to the follow-up questions and/or check their answers, help each other, etc. or they could spend the semester figuring out how to say “Hi, so-and-so, this post is very helpful,” in 60 words. It was up to them. I was not going to “police” Yellowdig and take away points for contributions lacking any real content. Instead, I’d invest my time and energy answering questions and reinforcing/clarifying important points.

And invest time I did – because I enjoyed it! I found myself checking Yellowdig four or more times a day, much more than was probably necessary, but I couldn’t stop myself. Although there were only thirty students in the class, it seemed like there were always new contributions to read. At first I jumped on answering questions people asked. Gradually I backed off and waited for other students in the class to chime in with an answer first. By the middle of the semester, I was mainly giving my thumbs up to contributions, providing clarifications when needed, and answering a few of the more challenging questions. Now, were there a few students whose contributions were mostly of the “hey, this is helpful” in 60 words? Certainly, but a whopping majority of the contributions had actual content.

Looking at trends in frequency of Yellowdig contributions, quiz scores, and homework scores there was a definite pattern – more Yellowdig contributions were correlated with higher quiz and homework scores. My guess is that some of this is due to the fact that students who contributed more were simply more invested in the class, but does suggest that actively engaging with the material and peer instruction outside of class through Yellowdig helped promote understanding. Nearly all of the students who responded to an anonymous end-of-course survey also said Yellowdig was at least “sort of” helpful and the vast majority said they’d recommend using Yellowdig next year.

So, will I use Yellowdig next year? Yes. Will it be as successful? Who knows? Ultimately, it’s the students that will make it or break it. What I do know, is that, overall, students were more successful in the course, their interest in course material was higher than usual, and I was able to connect much more with the students this year than in the past.

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