Using Checklists in Online Teaching

Context

The Fall 2020 semester turns out to be one of the stranger semesters that I have experienced, and Spring 2021 looks like it will be much the same. Many faculty members (myself included) have opted to teach online this semester. We reached this decision after much discussion and debate. In the end, being able to avoid exposing students to the COVID-19 virus, but also to limit the chance of catching/spreading it ourselves was our main driver.

Initially, I was a little reluctant to do so since it is harder to interact with the class and watch their comprehension of the subject material. However, I have to say that my students this semester are doing at least as well as they have other years, and maybe might be doing a little better.

I did not expect that.

I teach four classes this semester: one first-year class, two sophomore classes, and one second-year graduate class. The first one, our CSC190 Computer Science Orientation Seminar, is a 1-credit class that meets only once a week. I opted to teach it synchronously. The course introduces new students to computational thinking and it coaches them in the logistics of being a college student.

The other three courses are also fully online but are delivered as a mix of synchronous teaching and asynchronous teaching. In synchronous instruction, everyone is on a video call simultaneously. There is real-time interaction among the students and between students and faculty. In asynchronous education, students are responsible for watching videos that I post to YouTube and for doing readings on their own time.

To verify that they actually watch the lessons and complete the readings, I ask students to submit their notes and take a short quiz (8-10 questions) at the end of each week. One the one hand, it keeps them engaged with the materials. On the other hand, it allows me to check comprehension.

I use the synchronous classes to review the lecture materials in about 20 minutes. I use the remainder of the time for q&a, discussions, and in-class activities.

Checklists

Why this elaborate intro? I felt that it was needed to illustrate that, while nothing in this is hard, there are many moving parts that I, as the instructor, need to monitor. For each class, I want to make sure that it opens on time, that I have an opening slide that is displayed before the start of the class, that classes are recorded, and that recordings are posted. For each class, I must make sure that all activities are posted, with deadlines and appropriate exceptions, etc. Nothing is hard. But, with four courses, it is easy to miss a step.

The title of this post is Using Checklists in Online Teaching. I realized that I was making mistakes in presenting the materials to the students almost from the start of the semester. They were often minimal issues that didn't impact the content of the lesson. Still, they do have an effect on the experience. Errors like setting appropriate quiz deadlines, making sure that students with accommodations have the extra time, ensuring that I record each session and making it available, etc. are easily made.

Years ago, I read the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. In it, the author makes a compelling argument that checklists, in all their simplicity, are excellent tools to ensure that steps aren't skipped, and avoidable mistakes aren't made. Checklists are not meant to be step-by-step instructions; instead, they provide a quick, lightweight mechanism to ensure that nothing was missed.

Many industries --- notably aviation and medicine --- use checklists. This semester, I decided that I would give them a go too in my teaching. Overall, the outcomes have been very positive. I catch mistakes easier and earlier, which means that I get fewer emails from students with avoidable questions. Because of that, my courses are now more predictable, allowing students to prepare better, and get better outcomes.

My checklists are available here. Feel free to use them for your own courses, or develop new ones based on them. If they help you out, please let me know! I would love to hear about your experiences and see what improvements you made!