Teaching Strategies

Teaching More Efficiently With Checklists

Using checklists to keep track of many routine tasks can help teachers free up mental energy for more challenging work.

January 17, 2024
jayk7 / Getty Images

A simple checklist can be lifesaving, as renowned science writer Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, has documented in the field of medicine. Checklists may not be lifesaving for teachers, but they are are really helpful.

Research shows that teachers make more than 1,500 decisions and 252 judgments per day. Teacher decision-making rivals that of an air traffic controller. Checklists can relieve some cognitive load, providing a structure that prevents our forgetting important details.

Gawande writes: “Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, but they are required for success.” Below, I share several ways to use and modify checklists to lessen the information load in the classroom.

Mini checklists

During some school years, I’ve had two or three rotations of students. While I knew and had relationships with every student, recalling lists of names quickly, daily, was cognitively taxing. I found that I needed a quick mini checklist of student names that I could place anywhere.

When students turned in their writing assignments, I used a mini checklist to track who had turned in their work and whose was missing. I then checked off each student’s name as I graded. These mini checklists also helped when substitute teachers came in, when parents volunteered in the room, and when I collaborated with specialists.

I now serve multiple campuses as a teaching specialist and maintain mini checklists for each school, and grade level, that I work with. I also keep a checklist of new teachers who may need additional support. These checklists help to ensure that I don’t forget anyone. I keep them close by so I don’t have to repeatedly recall those details, and my mental energy is freed up to be present in my work.

Foundational Checklists

Working as an instructional coach led me to realize that we, as teachers and administrators, usually have foundational expectations for classroom experiences. 

For example, my district expects elementary teachers to lead guided reading groups. We originally assumed that all teachers had the common foundational knowledge to do so. However, when working more closely with teachers, I discovered that their diverse trainings did not necessarily cover this information; I needed a checklist that included foundational elements of running a guided reading group lesson to help guide their work and my coaching. 

Providing a checklist broke down the barriers for discussion. It limited assumptions and helped us discuss each checkpoint—each step in the procedure. Having a framework helped us reach clarity about expectations and the curricular elements that must be included. 

This exercise reminded me that it’s always OK to go back to basics and make sure all foundational details are clear. Routine procedures may seem too simple for checklists; however, our process may start to break down when something is done repeatedly over time, meaning checklists can help to ensure fidelity. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t predict what is needed without the experience, training, or checklist to guide us.

Successful Checklists

There are many formats for checklists, and matching structure with purpose is an important part of success. For example, you might use a procedural checklist (that outlines action steps) for daily routines and a task-driven checklist (similar to a to-do list) to move you forward with focus. 

I found that lesson planning was a routine that seemed ominous until I broke it down into a checklist. I began by listing the content, the standard(s), and the tasks that students would need to do to meet them. I then listed the activities that we would do as a class. I broke down a large to-do into smaller steps to help myself see how I could accomplish it—and I discovered many helpful tools that similarly structure lesson planning as a checklist-driven process. 

Another tip: Don’t make your checklists too long. Keep them as simple and short as possible until you’ve accomplished those items. Begin, for example, with five to 10 items. Add new items as you progress through your initial list to keep yourself motivated.

There are a number of AI tools to enhance your checklist creation, such as Checklist.gg. Use these tools to quickly edit, add, delete, or redo task items. 

Student Checklists

Students can benefit from checklists as well. For daily tasks, even those they do as a routine, a checklist can help them stay focused, supporting executive functioning skills and metacognition. 

Checklists help students feel accomplished even when work seems challenging. They can create a checklist of ways that they think and learn best, which can help them predict, focus, and recall information—and can also provide a study guide for times when they’re feeling stuck. 

The National Institutes of Health supports this notion, saying, “Using checklists in education can facilitate the learning process, help in memorization, and deepen the concepts being studied.” 

While reading informational text, students can use a checklist of text features to aid analysis. For a multistep math problem, a simple checklist can help students to not miss a step. I use Thinking Maps with my students—and create checklists with prompts for different types of thinking routines. This encourages students to reflect on different types of thinking and determine what to do next, and it also prevents my telling them how to think. Instead, students track their thinking and try new cognitive strategies.

Checklist Wrap Up

Pilots and surgeons use checklists for common routines. Teachers have just as many decisions to make and details to track, from student and family names to allergies, requests, standards, learning needs, and all that goes into daily lessons and instruction. The requisite cognitive load can become overwhelming. 

But when we use checklists to structure and simplify our work, we position ourselves for success. The Lazy Genius Collective speaks to being “lazy” about things that don’t matter and smart about things that do. With checklists, I don’t have to recall every student’s name on command. I can be lazy with a name checklist, which frees me up to be smart about relationships, important student connections, and instruction. As a first step, consider experimenting with this AI tools checklist that I created.

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