Improving my online classes with checklists

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from March 2018 where I discuss the pedagogical benefits of adding checklists to your online class. Enjoy!

At some point in my online and face-to-face classes, I’ll ask my students to reflect on the journey so far and to provide feedback on ways that I can improve things. Since I’m almost entirely teaching online this academic year, I’m getting some real solid feedback from my students on ways that my online classes can be improved. Across all of the feedback, one suggestion stands out as the most requested improvement lately. Checklists.

From a learning science perspective, my students’ request for checklists absolutely makes sense. Checklists help students to be more metacognitive and to self-regulate their learning. Well-defined checklists can make expectations clear for students and help them monitor their progress in completing the expectations. When completing complex assignments, checklists can help students better understand the individual tasks embedded within the complexity.

Besides the direct connections to learning, checklists are also one of the ways to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in your classes. One of the principles of UDL is “providing multiple means of action and expression.” This broad principle can be more easily understood when the supporting guidelines are considered. Checklists fall under the guideline for executive functioning and would help students “develop and act on plans to make the most out of learning” (CAST, 2018). Digger deeper into UDL, checklists help students set appropriate goals, strategically plan their work, manage course information and resources, and monitor their own progress. While checklists may seem like a simple strategy, it’s clear that they can have a huge impact on student learning.

The application of checklists to online learning environments is also pretty clear. Since so much of the instruction, interaction and assessment in an online class are mediated through technology, it’s easy for a student to miss things. A student could misread a due date or misunderstand an expectation. A checklist helps to reduce these missteps and provides supports for students to navigate the online space and do their best work.

I also think a lot about cognitive load when I create my online classes. Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort required to process information and learn something. While we talk about cognitive load as being a single entity, researchers actually identify three different types of cognitive load: germane, intrinsic, and extraneous. Germane cognitive load refers to the metal processes required to acquiring, automating and associating concepts in long-term memory. By contrast, intrinsic load describes the difficulty based on the concept being learned. Learning to add or subtract is much easier than learning differential equations. The processes have different intrinsic loads associated with them. Since we don’t typically control the cognitive difficulty of the content or the mental processes required to learn them, instructors don’t really have much control over germane or intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous load is a different story, though. Extraneous load describes the difficulty to learn something based on how it is presented. I’m sure we’ve all sat through lessons where our ability to concentrate was challenged. Maybe the teacher spoke with a monotone voice. Or maybe the presentation slides were so visually disorganized that they were hard to follow. Or maybe the lesson itself was poorly organized and disjointed. These examples showcase the power of extraneous load.

In a way, checklists can be considered as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load. Checklists can clear up any disorganization and help to focus students’ attention on the critical activities they need to complete. After detailing the instructional impacts of checklists, it looks like I’m going to have to find the time to build them into my online classes.

References:
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

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