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How to Help Students Stay on Top of Things (Hint: Use Checklists)

Checklists are simple but insanely EFFECTIVE

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by Norman Eng in Blog, classroom management
January 19, 2021 5 comments

You ever have students miss an assignment? 

Or forget to do something they’re supposed to do?

Or just in general get easily confused about class?

I do. It frustrates the heck out of me, because I feel like I’m SO CLEAR. Like, Were you not paying attention? 

Now I realize that being clear is just one part of being a good teacher. Students have so much going on, so it’s easy for them to overlook your tasks and assignments. 

That’s why I use checklists now. 

They’re so simple. But they WORK. 

How I Use Checklists

For each weekly module, I have something that looks like this: 

Do you see how each task has a checkbox next to it? 

Don’t worry about details for each task or assignment yet. Just give students the overview first.

Also, include not just assignments, but small tasks too if needed. Things like:

  • Sign up for Office Hours!
  • Coming up: Fieldwork report (in three weeks!)
  • Complete at least 2 hours of clinical observations this week

When I use checklists, students appear to be more on top of things.

The Power of Checklists (A Quick Story)

In his bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande explains how checklists completely transformed patient safety:

In 2001, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give a doctor checklist a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist encompass everything ICU teams might need to do in a day. 

He designed it to tackle just one of their hundreds of potential tasks: central line infections.

On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting in a central line. Providers are supposed to:

    1. Wash their hands with soap.
    2. Clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic.
    3. Put sterile drapes over the entire patient.
    4. Wear a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves.
    5. Put a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the line is in.

Check, check, check, check, and check.

These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.

For a year afterward, Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line infection rate went from 11 percent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections, eight deaths and saved two million dollars in costs.”

Pronovost recruited more colleagues, and they tested some more checklists in his Johns Hopkins ICU. One aimed to ensure that nurses observed patients for pain at least once every four hours and provided timely pain medication. This reduced from 41 percent to 3 percent the likelihood of a patient’s enduring untreated pain.

They tested a checklist for patients on mechanical ventilation, making sure, for instance, that doctors prescribed antacid medication to prevent stomach ulcers and that the head of each patient’s bed was propped up at least thirty degrees to stop oral secretions from going into the windpipe. The proportion of patients not receiving the recommended care dropped from 70 percent to 4 percent, the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter, and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year.

The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the ICU create their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

These checklists accomplished what checklists elsewhere have done, Pronovost observed. They helped with memory recall and clearly set out the minimum necessary steps in a process.

Checklists, he found, established a higher standard of baseline performance.

For students, checklists can help organize their work. Did they finish everything that was assigned for the week? Did they leave anything out? That’s probably their biggest concern.

Secondly, having a checklist summary at the top of the module acts as an easy reference.

How Do You Actually Insert Checkboxes into Your LMS? 

That might require creativity. 

For some, maybe you create a word document and then save it as a PDF for students to download. Many students like having that physical copy. This way, they can check off each task with a pen when done. 

If you’re on Blackboard learning management system (LMS), simply click the “html” view in the tool bar. Paste the code: 

<input type=”checkbox”>YOUR WORDS GO HERE<br />

If you’re on Canvas, it’s less straightforward. But there are workarounds posted on the discussion board here. 

If you’re on Moodle, there’s also a workaround video posted here. 

If you’re on other LMS’s, like Google Classroom, just search “how to add checkboxes [or checklists] for [your LMS].”

What Do Students Think of Checklists?

Checklists can help your students do well in your class, but don’t take my word for it. Below are the actual feedback from my students last term. 

(Note that their responses were based on the question: What worked well in my class? Responses about checklists were unprompted.)

I thought writing out all of the assignments the students had to complete in the weekly content tab was very helpful, especially the boxes you added that students could check off after completing an assignment.

Our checklist for the week; it allowed us to see what we need to do and what we have done already.

I loved reading your weekly content posts. They were easy on the eyes and I really appreciated you putting the checklist for us because I was able to see what I still had left to complete. 

[What helped was] The fact that every week there was a checklist and a timeline. I knew exactly what to expect on a weekly basis.

It was also really easy to see what work we had to complete and I liked the little checklist you created in [Blackboard]! I think it was really nice as I liked being able to know what I have completed.

The weekly content was really helpful and the checklist because it allowed me to be on track of my work.

In summary, you can mitigate the overwhelm. Checklists can help students manage the workload better by allowing them to check off, one by one, each task they complete. In this way, they won’t miss anything!

Please let me know your thoughts below!

5 Comments
  1. Frank says:

    I’ve heard of using checklists but this makes it really clear about how to use it and why it works! Thanks for this.

  2. Natasha says:

    I always use a checklist for myself and I also include a list for students of the activities they have to do, but I didn’t know I could add a checklist in blackboard! Golden! Thanks for that!

    1. Norman Eng says:

      When I found out, I had the same reaction! So glad it helps.

  3. Megan Pietruszewski says:

    On Canvas LMS, there is an option to add requirements for each module, so students are required to “mark done” a page. Enabling this feature might also help students organize class material.

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

  4. Andrea Goering says:

    Thanks for the visuals! I think the html embed you suggest would work on Moodle, too! Moodle also has “activity tracking” already built in, which sounds like what Megan describes above – but the checkboxes are on each assignment, not all gathered in one handy place.

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

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