Skip to main content

Blogs

Keeping Your Students on Track with Checklists

By Kent Darr

Checklists are a common tool in the modern world. They can help us to buy groceries, complete home repairs, set a meeting agenda, or monitor progress toward completion of large work projects. Because checklists can help us to create order in otherwise chaotic circumstances, it’s no surprise they have historically been used to fly planes, launch rockets, and save lives. But even in their more mundane uses, checking a task off of a to-do list releases dopamine into our brains, increasing the likelihood that we will stay motivated to complete the entire list. Thus, checklists help their users to achieve long-term goals by rewarding them for short-term work. Knowing this, it only makes sense to ask the question: Can checklists benefit learners in the higher education environment?

In our Spring 2020 online learning survey, many students stated that their biggest challenge since transitioning to online learning was difficulty keeping track of due dates and requirements. They shared observations like, “Keeping track of all of the work that I have to do was very difficult. If I forgot about an assignment, there was no way to remember I had it without being in class.” Others expressed that learning from home posed a significant barrier to learning for them, specifically describing problems staying motivated and keeping themselves accountable.

Much like life in the world-at-large, checklists in higher education function as scaffolds for assisting their user to complete a list of required tasks. From the instructor’s standpoint, checklists can be important tools for creating an equitable learning environment. By explicitly detailing the tasks required to complete a module or unit, instructors can surface the hidden curriculum of academics that disproportionately rewards learners who have the skills to plan their own learning activities. This is especially important for populations such as first generation students with little prior experience in higher education and require more institutional support to succeed.

There’s no doubt that building checklists can feel redundant after creating materials like a syllabus and course schedule. And the truth is, it sure can feel that way! However, it is good to keep in mind that your students are likely taking several classes at once, so that an individual student can be navigating the disparate expectations of several different teachers at any given time. Thus, checklists situated inside of a weekly module can be lifesavers for those who are overwhelmed by their course load because they break down the tasks to be done in any class that utilizes them. This frees up students’ cognitive resources to focus on content and skill competency rather than mastery of the class rulebook. Taking the time to develop checklists upfront will also likely mean spending less time answering questions about items coming due via email or during valuable in-class time - giving you more time to coach and mentor your students' learning. 

The Checklist tool in Isidore can help solve these problems by providing your learners with a short, succinct, and interactive list that allows the user to track their progress toward module completion.
Student view of checking off items with the Checklist tool

The Checklist will simultaneously communicate and organize the tasks to be done, while also granting learners a chance to self-monitor and reap the psychological rewards that accompany the completion of even small tasks.

Some may have valid concerns about the effectiveness of checklists or how checklists affect the educational experience. For instance, adding a weekly checklist could make your class feel more mechanized, cheap, or rigid. Some may see a checklist as spoonfeeding or handholding. Others may think weekly checklists might not actually be effective in helping students reach the learning outcomes of your class.

There is probably some truth to these claims. Adding a weekly checklist could make your course modules feel repetitive - but they could also add some much needed consistency. Adding a weekly checklist could diminish the amount of educational exploring the students do on their own - but they can also keep them on task. Adding a weekly checklist could prove to be ineffective at helping some of your students - but they could help those who are struggling most. 

With those thoughts in mind, here are 5 tips for creating useful checklists for your classes:

5 tips for creating checklists

If you need any other evidence about why checklists matter to students, here are a few more comments from the survey of UD students last spring:

  • "I only have one class that uses the checklist, and I would love for more classes to use it. I think consistency is really important." 
  • "Utilize Isidore's checklist feature to let the students see what needs to be done each week."
  • "Have a weekly checklist to help make sure we are staying on top of everything." 

If you need suggestions or help with creating checklists, don't hesitate to reach out to eLearning. We're happy to provide guidance on how to break-down your course work and answer questions about how the Checklist tool works.