A conversation with Dr. Edna Ross about Teaching, Learning and EdTech During the Pandemic

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Teaching and learning have changed tremendously over the past year and a half, with student engagement becoming more important than ever. We’re speaking with college instructors who use edtech like iClicker to support student success, starting with Dr. Edna Ross, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Louisville with specializations in learning and cognitive psychology. Read about how she uses technology to support both synchronous and asynchronous learning, along with tips on how to keep students’ attention throughout class.


Online teaching and learning have changed tremendously during the pandemic. What aspects do you think will stick around for the long term?

During the pandemic, the way we use instructional technologies changed -- we used it more than ever to keep students engaged, no matter where they were physically located so that their headspace would always be on the topic at hand. Among the technologies were tools to help students stay focused as well as learn self monitoring and self regulatory behaviors. iClicker is an example of that.

Even though students will listen to a lecture, they sometimes think that they can do other things at the same time, such as view Facebook, email, or play online games. But in cognitive psychology we know attention is key to the intellectualDr Edna Ross quote.png system and without paying focused attention, especially to new and or complex information, information processing of the new material is not going to be very good. We know that students need to stay focused and pay attention in order to do well, and iClicker is an important tool to give students and faculty the feedback that allows them to stay focused.

I believe that the use of educational technology to keep students engaged and focused will remain an important part of teaching and learning in the years to come. 

What are some ways you keep the distractions at bay to help students stay focused?

We discussed the focus feature, and that’s a very critical aspect, but that’s not the only way. Just straight lecturing will not work in an online environment -- especially in a synchronous online learning environment. 

Active learning exercises keep students attention focused and engaged. So, in my classes, every 5-10 minutes I ask the students questions. They’re either discussion questions or content, memory, or synthesis questions. 

What about asynchronous learning -- can iClicker work there as well?

Focus is also important for asynchronous classroom discussions. There’s a feature in iClicker where you can set up an iClicker quiz and students can answer that quiz in their own timeframe after viewing a recorded lecture.

We also used the quizzing function for students in quarantine, and those that were too ill to even attend a synchronous class remotely. In order to adjust their iClicker points I would create quizzes over my recorded lecture and that would be their iClicker points (15% of the grade) for that particular day. 

When did you first start using iClicker, and why?

I was one of the original beta users, and I started using it about 15 years ago. I started using it because I taught very large lecture classes and needed a way to engage with a large group of students, and keep me and the students on the same wavelength. People who teach for a long period of time fall into what David Myers calls the “curse of knowledge,” where we understand the content, but because we’ve taught it so long, we’ve lost the ability to achieve the perspective of the novice learner, or the person who has heard the information for the first time. 

iClicker allows me to know what the students don’t know, as opposed to assuming that the lectures are so informative and explanatory that everyone understands the concepts. I needed something to give me the feedback for my 350+ student lecture classes. Back then there was no easy way of doing it, and iClicker was a godsend. It required no systemic or enterprise interventions and was something faculty could set them up for individual classrooms that did not need to be hardwired. It was a simple, easy to use, and yet extraordinary functional and effective instructional tech.

Also, I gave it a shot because iClicker was created by two faculty members teaching physics at the University of Champagne, Illinois. So they had the mindset of faculty so they understood my concerns and what I needed technology to do. It wound up being seamless to use for faculty, and was also intuitive for students to use. 

You recommend starting class with a question. Can you tell me more about what types of questions you recommend asking, and the benefits to asking them?

Cognitive psychology has demonstrated time and time again that the more frequently students are required to retrieve information, the more easily and effectively the information is processed in the memory system. Asking a question in the beginning of class that addresses what you covered previously, and allows students to understand what they have remembered. It also offers insight as to what the instructor finds to be particularly relevant. So, the first question should be what you covered in the previous class to make sure students actually understand that information. 

Also, you can use it as a springboard of continuity into the current lecture. If students do well on that question, which we hope they will, you don’t need to backtrack; but if a significant number of students don’t do well on the memory retrieval question that means you need to go over some of the information again to make sure students understand it.

What kind of insights about student performance do you get from using your iClicker in class?

I know what students don’t know. And that allows students themselves to know what they don’t know. 

Students email me that they think they understand something, but then see responses to the iClicker question and realize that they may have misread their notes or perhaps misunderstood something. They like it as a way of letting them know what they know and what they don’t know. From my perspective, I understand what students know, what they understand, and what they need more clarification on.

Some students are intimidated by raising their hand in class. How does iClicker address that concern?

It does happen quite often. But on the other hand, there are students that try to dominate, no matter the size of the lecture. There’s a couple of students that always raise their hands and want to talk, as well, which  skews the conversation in one direction -- their direction. Sometimes students don’t want to say if they disagree with that student or that point, or if they have a different perspective. 

iClicker allows every student to have a voice, and students don’t have to be intimidated by expressing their opinion, or by asking questions. If a student doesn’t understand they’re often not going to raise their hand to say they don’t understand. So you as the instructor don’t know that you need to clarify a concept. With iClicker you know how many students according to a histogram how many students had problems with the concept and you know you need to back over that particular topic again and ask a different iClicker question to see if they understood again before you go on -- particularly if its a foundational concept. 

Also, the iClicker question can often become a springboard for the rest of my lecture, which also allows me to be more spontaneous in the information I present. 

You use exit polls in your class. What are the benefits to them?

Yes, I do. Exit polls give students the opportunity to let me know if they need further elaboration on any concepts from the lecture. It covers what’s called the “muddiest point” which allows students to let you know what they didn't understand. You can then clarify those points at the beginning of the next lecture. It’s very helpful in allowing faculty to specifically tailor their content delivery to the needs of the student. 

Dr. Edna Ross is Professor of Psychology at the University of Louisville who recently spoke at REMOTE, the connected faculty summit (see the recording here). She has received several awards for teaching and student involvement from university staff and students alike. Dr. Ross has received several awards for teaching and student involvement from the University of Louisville including the College of Arts and Sciences’ peer conferred Distinguished Teaching Award, and the student nominated Faculty Favorite Award.