How to LIST-ify Your Classroom: 7 Lists…7 Tips

by Tom McBride

How To LISTify Your Classroom

7 Lists…7 Tips

The Marist Mindset List is a famed annual event because it supplies a witty and provocative list of items about what has “always” or “never” been true in the lives of entering college students. But the Marist List is much more than a yearly event. Here we offer some teaching tips based on creative uses of—you guessed it—LISTSWelcome to How to LIST-ify Your Classroom. Lists: They aren’t just for supermarkets or even just for mindsets any more. –T.M. (Contact:

List Number 1: The First Day List 

We’re so familiar with making a list that we don’t ee its creative potential. To start with, every list has two parts: what’s on it and what’s not on it. Someone once said of a college dean, “He doesn’t have a black list. He just has a list, and you’re either on it or not.” That’s true of all lists: the cucumbers were either on it or not, and if not, why not? Don’t answer that. 

So let’s take this principle in the classroom and in life outside it. In the classroom we always start with a list. It’s called a syllabus. It includes some things and excludes others. This is where the teacher starts: She explains what’s on the syllabus and, though less often, shares what’s NOT on the syllabus. And in doing so, in prepping to do so, she clarifies for herself and others what her aims are. She gets a better sense of her focus. “I could have included this, but I didn’t, and here’s why.” This is a great first-day starter in the classroom. The syllabus is presented, and the introduction to the course is about what’s on it but above all what’s NOT on it. Lists are revealing by the contrast between inclusion and exclusion. 

Call this THE FIRST DAY LIST. But it could also be called the EXCLUSION LIST, and our point is that the two lists (inclusion/exclusion) shold be one and the same. Meanwhile, in the classroom you can go through the first-day syllabus by explaining what you left OFF and why. It’s a way to focus the course ahead of the weeks to come. Sam Goldwyn: “Include me out.” 

You can do this in life, too: whatever the subject, clarify your thinking by making a list and considering what is NOT on it, and why. 

And thus endeth the first List.  

2: The Tracking List 

In our previous episode we covered the exclusion/inclusion principle of lists. Today we consider another aspect of lists: order and ranking. Let’s start with order. In Episode 3 we’ll consider ranking

Order: When we go to the grocery store we usually make a list based on the layout of the store. The first aisle is the section for vegetables and fruits (also those plastic juice bottles shaped like lemons), so the mangoes and carrots always head the list. Pet food and ice come last, and you can guess why. 

This is the law, and order, of our grocery list, at least as long as we keep going to Super Savings Supermarket. 

But what about more conceptual lists? Let’s take the art of reading. In the classroom teachers assign readings all the time. Even as you read this, there are millions of people reading their course assignments from Singapore to Greenland. But, if you’re a professor, why just assign readings in literary theory or social sciences? Why not also help your students become better readers at the same time? You can do this… by having them make a list. 

How? Well, think of the grocery store layout. After you’ve been to the store a few times you get the lay (and the law) of the aisles and conform your list to it. Have your students consider a reading assignment to be like a trip to the store. Once they’ve finished reading the assignment, or “checked out,” to continue the analogy, ask them to LIST the key ideas of the reading in the orderin which they appear. 

So: after your students have finished a reading, ask them to LIST each concept IN THE TIMELINE IN WHICH IT APEARS and thus to map, for themselves, how getting one concept helps them get the next one and so on. This is a wa to get students to see what reading is inseparable from navigating Space-Time.Supermarkets unfold in a certain order and according to certain “laws.” So do many reading assignments, and if they don’t, they’re like grocery stores that make you guess, each time, on which aisle the cooking oil is this time. 

We’re sometimes tempted to call these sorts of lists “Law and Order Lists,” but much more encouraging is the label TRACKING LIST. The list in Part 1 was called the First Day List. The Tracking List is different. The First Day List belongs to the teacher. The Tracking List belongs to the students. And once every student has done one, then there’s some gold in the class. Students can consult their own Tracking Lists in order (note that word) to review the reading. They can start making Tracking Lists in the future in order to get a quick sense not only of what they have read but also HOW THEY HAVE READ IT: how a reading instructs them. You as teacher can have students exchange their Tracking Lists as a way of promoting both small-group and larger-group discussions of the reading. 

College reading assignments aren’t like the regular layout of the Super Saving Supermarket. Each one is a little different. Butr once students have had a little practice with Tracking Lists, they’ll discover that different reading assignments in a particular field don’t vary all that much in their presentation procedures. Just as the oranges are generally in aisle 1, the thesis is generally on about page 3, or maybe about 7.5 minutes in. Still, results will admittedly vary. 

Last of all, this can help professors better choose reading assignments. If such an assignment does not have some discernible law and order to to its mode of presentation, then maybe it should be left off. Exclude a lawless, virtually untrackable, reading. 

3: The Ranking List 

This is a common use of lists. You can find them easily on the Internet: Top 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Woodstock or Top Ten Blues Radio Stations, and so forth. Nearly everybody likes a Top 10 List. If you’re on Facebook and propose a ranking of horror movies, you nearly always, in our experience, get plenty of comments. Everyone agrees that there ought to be a ranking, if few people concur on what the ranking should be.  Should “Psycho” or “Halloween I” be number one? How about “The Town That Dreaded Sundown?” 

Ranking Lists in the classroom have multiple uses. Once a course is nearly over, or a section of a course is over, students can rank the readings in various orders: pleasure, clarity, usefulness, and so forth. If the course is a literature course, you could ask students to rank, say, Salinger short stories in order of greatness. The nice thing about Ranking Lists is that first of all, you can do these lists according to many, many caregories (greatness, utilitry, difficulty, etc.); and second, these rankings, once shared, are an effective discussion switch. Ask students to explain and defend their rankings. It’s a means to generate substantive analysis and excitement about a course section, as long as students are required to articulate the rationales for their judgments. 

Ranking Lists can be l quirky. You can, outside the classroom, list The Top 10 Movies Set in Winter, and have a parlor discussion (if such still exists), or internet chat, about why you chose which ones in which order (our favorite is GhostStory), and why others did or did not do the same. Or: suppose (back to the classroom again) you are teaching a Shakespeare course. Ask students to list the Top !0 Shakespeare Characters Who Would Have Made a Difference If They’d Been in ANOTHER Play by Shakespeare. Suppose Iago from Othellohad been King Claudius’ number one assistant instead of Polonius (Hamlet). Suppose Hamlet had loved Juliet instead of Romeo. You could ask students to rank these in order of how much difference these transferred characters would have made. It’s an eccentric way to think about the structure and motivations and motifs in Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It’s also a stimulating one. 

Or: Ask students at various times to list, in order of most to least important, what they don’t (yet) understand about course contents so far. This can reveal to you, and to them, what they’re still struggling with. Top 10 Things I Still Don’t Get. 

At this point we’ll stop. You get the idea. Rankng Lists can be clarifying. They can be fun. They can be creative. You can use them in classroom ways (likely ways that we ourselves have never thought of but that you will) and all sorts of non-classroom ways, too; otherwise known as life. 

4: The Always/Never List 

These lists can be good for teaching and learning and good therapy for life (“life” is an extra part of this little series, at no extra cost). . What are they? 

They are lists of items that describe ongoing ways of life: continuous, daily time with a reliable and repeated set of activities and mentalities. Slighty Quirky Example: Priests in small Middle Western towns in the early 1950s lived a certain way. They did predictable things each day and had immovable assumptions. There were things they “always” did (said mass, listened to confessions) and other things that they “never” did (went to a parish member’s house for dinner more than once a month, rebelled openly against the adamantine housekeepers the parish had provided for them, auctioned off merchandise for sale at parish fund-raisers).d Short stories tend to be perfect illustrations of “Always/Never” Lists, since these stories often begin with “set” ways of life that are about to be interrupted by an unpredictable event that wll form the heart of the short story. (Note: The stories of J.F. Power are good sources of the “always/never” lives of priests.)  

Alwayis/Never Lists are useful for describing, in a quick and concise way, the ethos of functional (or dysfunctional) ways of life. The subject of these Lists, whether they are about priests or office workers or the French court prior to the French revolution or nuclear physics labs or McDonalds restaurant staff. is “how they do things.” There may be no rhyme or reason, we may think, for how things are done in these various worlds (or subcultures), but “we do it this way because we always have” often prevails. These worlds, however, may be creative or complacent, productive or, when viewed by the Lister and her readers, ironic. 

So how are such Always/Never Lists useful, first of all, in the classroom. Let’s look at possible assignments, such as this one: In this micro-economics course thus far, we have been looking at the economic activities of smaller groups and institutions, and the theories behind these activities. Your assignment: Assume a micro-economic group of one hundred peope, all your age, and write an Always/Never List itemizing what economic activities and mindsets they would ideally do over and over agin in order to make best use of their scarce resources. Limit your List to no more than 25 items, then brief a brief essay of about 1500 words justifying it. 

 We’re going to stop right there. By now you know what an Alwayis/Never List is; how it captures ongoing, often subcultural, ways of life; and you are innovative enough to know how these sorts of Lists can be used to assign your students’ creative work in sociology, economics, history, literature, and even biology (the always/never behavioral rules for survival of beetles and snail darters). 

But we will say one more thing: about Always/Never Lists as therapyi for life itself. Jot down your own personal A/N List and ask yourself: Is my repeated, habitual way of life the optimal one for me? What things that I always do should I do less regularly, and what things that I never do should I start doin

5: The Comparison Shopping List

The Comparison-Shopping List is on the face of it one of the least glamorous of the list genres. It is, as its name implies, a double list (at least), two lists side by side, and what is on the left is compared with what is on the right. 

This is the classroom (teaching/learning) version of comparison shopping. In both the commercial and academic versions, one is looking for the better outcome. It could be the best designer beer for the money or the best argument for the available time. 

Yet while the Comparison-Shopping List seems obvious, it is probably the most helpful list of all. Benjamin Franklin made it famous in his memoirs when he showed how he made decisions: by listing the pros and cons of every choice, commercial or otherwise, in a list. It helped crystallize and condense his thinking. He thought he had worked all the pros and cons in his head, but once he took quill to Philadelphia fooscap he realized he had not done so. Writing things down has a way of jogging buried memories or liberating latent ideas. And seeing the stark differences in black and white provides an overview that, at once, both hastens and exposes good decision making. You don’t always know what you think until you see what you have to say. 

In modern comparison-shopping lists, price is one consideration, but it isn’t the only one. What are the others? List them. In life and in education (isn’t that part of life, too?) one is loking (shopping) for beneficial outcomes. Shopping is a human activity so pervasive that it is scarcely avoidable. Even Cro-Magnons must have done it. 

But, you may ask, isn’t the comparison shopping over once the student elects to take the course? How many choices does a student have after that? Plenty, and they are not just confined to class attendance and seating choices. Students are also asked to choose between and among opposing ideas. They are asked to assess these ideas, and to choose which ones to write about. When the student shops for and “buys” the course, the shopping has just started. Yes, students ARE consumers in the sense that smart consumers make informed and reflective decisions. 

Whether the professor does it or the student does, listing colliding ideas and arguments about this or that subject is a fine way to map the stuff that a course is all about. Comparison Shopping need not just be a website that contrasts package tours. It can also be a smart board that shows the differences between feminist and non-femknist existentialism or between theoretical and applied quantum physics. 

And if a student is browsing for a thesis for a paper. how does she choose which governing proposition will work best for her? Which one does she know the most about? Which one is she most confident of or most comfortable with? Which one would be hardest to find supporting materials for? Suppose she were to list four or five possible theses and then, below each one, list the pros and cons of choosing each one for a paper topic. One thesis might involve hard-to-get sources but it might also be the most interesting and original one? Which should she “buy”? A Comparison -Shopping List, academic version, will help make the choices more lucid. 

What the ancient Greeks called “dialectic” is central to teaching and learning. It’s point-counterpoint. In nearly every field, including quantum physics, there are serious disputes about both theory and evidence. Writing these down, whether on the board or on a screen, in Comparison List form does wonders to focus the conflicts and train lights on the controversies. 

We urge you to try making a Comparison-Shopping List. It may take a while to get the hang of. Practice in the fine art of them, though, will create incentives to go back to them many more times than once. Meanwhile, remember: KAYAK is just old-fashioned dialectic in digital form. 

6: The Connector List 

The definition of the Connector List is nearly self-evident: it’s a list where the various items are linked in some way. But every Connector List needs a a definable universe. You can put down on a List that the great ape died in a local zoo and that your great aunt on the same day got a paper cut, but what is the tie between the two? This is the nub of a Connector List: either the definable universe is the basis for the connections, or the discovered connections slowly build up a definable universe. If your great aunt were upset by the great ape’s death, because she had once been his keeper, and in her distraction got a paper cut, then there is a definable universe established by the linkage between death and cut. The great ape and your great aunt live in the same universe. Then, before you know it, you have the basis for a promising Connector List: bonds within the universe of a great ape’s death and the people and things his passing created. 

How does this work in the universe of teaching? Here are some possibilities. 

First, a student may, in preparing for an exam or just testing her own understanding, put down a diverse data-set from a definable section of a course. We recommend that she do this quickly and with no regard for whether or not the items fit together snugly. Then, after 15 or 20 of these items have been listed, she can go through them and see if she can connect them. If the items seem to be non-linkable, then that may be a sign that understanding is a little thin on the ground. If they seem quite connectable, this is likely a sign of good conceptual comprehension. Or there is a third possibility: that in finding the connections the student comes upon  a new and insightful way to review the material. So the possibilities are: I get this; I need to go over this stuff again; or I’ve got some great new ideas. 

Second, a teacher can also use a Connector List. The professor can present such a list to the class and ask class members to connect the items. “Here is what seems to be a highly varied data-set of items, but in fact they are linkable by careful attention to the concepts of this course. Can you link them? If not, let’s see what might be going on.” 

Both these methods—the study method and the instructional method—revolve around Connector Lists. They have in common: an attempt to link details with principles, specific information with abstract concepts. But within the whole idea of a Connector List is a warning. , for there are two inadequateways to learn a course: One can grasp the major principles but be sorely lacking in supporting details and examples; or one can have a great memory of details but lack a full appreciation of general principles. A wise use of Connector Lists can save one from being either a bull-shiter or a fgrinder. Connector Lists are good ways to increase one’s sense of the concepts while, in working on the connections, the linkages, promote one’s more sophisticated understanding of the nitty-gritty. 

Connector Lists dwell within universes of knowledge, and you can build a universe from the top down or the bottom up, but a good student needs skill in both kinds of construction. 

Or, to put it another way, one can use a Connector List to be understand a universe of knowledge, or use a Linkage List to build one.

7: The Designer List 

The best way to approach a Designer List is by considering that your academic aim, whether a review or a paper or an oral presentation, is a product: a product to be designed. 

Let’s start with an analogy and assume that a biological species is a product: one that is built in order to survive and flourish. So what would have to be included in such a product? Several things. The species “product” must be designed in order to acquire and use resources, such as the sun or the soil or other members of the same species or the air or accessible prey. The species product must be designed in order to recognize and escape from predators. And, since there can never be just one member of a species in order for the species to exist at all, the design must also include some way of sexual or asexual reproduction. So a Designer List here would look like this: 

Capacity for Use Environmental Resources

Capcity to Recognize and Flee Predators 

Capacity to Reproduce 

That’s it. A short list. But you’re not done. Now comes the Devil part: the details. For instance, if you are designing what will become a cow you don’t want to give the cow lion’s teeth, because cows need to chew cud and grass. That’s how they get along in their environment. A lion lives in a different setting. A cow should have special awareness of a wolf and seek shelter if possible. A lion can easily defeat a wolf, and the wolf, if there were one, would know it. So a lion needs no special wolf-detection skills. A lion needs speed and power because it stays alive by dealing with prey and predators in the wild. A cow gets by via the supply of milk, so designing the cow to be as scary as the lion would make no sense: no one wants to milk a lion-cow! 

So now the Cow Designer List (we’ll exclude the reproduction item in the interest of time) will look different: 

Capacity to Use Environmental Resources: Cow

–Offers plentiful supplies of milk

–Easily approached by human milkers

–Particularly good capacity to eat and digest grass

Capacity to Recognize and Escape Predators: Cow

–Special sensitivity to the presence of wolves

–Getting protection from human beings in exchange for milk 


Note, too, that there is a functionalrelationship between the two capacities (use of resources, escape from predators) and the structural details that serve those two capacities. And if you follow us this far (can there be any question of that?), you’re now ready to do a Designer List of your own. We’ll give you one big example: An AcademicDesigner List—this is after all about the classroom above all—and then turn you loose to build, following these principles, your own academic list. 

We double back to a recent idea: that the purposes of the design, and the accompanying list, is to build a product. A cow is a cow-product. A paper or a presentation or a review session: they are all products. Products are poorly designed or well-designed. We used the example of a cow and a lion, but we could have used the example of a bar of soap or a smart phone. Well, we could have if we knew anything about soap. 

So let’s say you are writing a paper. Well, a cow in order to be successful has to have capacities A, B, X, Y, Z, etc. What must you have? Well, you’ll need lots of things, right? You’ll need a broovy intro (one that will draw the reader into your subject); you’ll need a so-what section (why is this important?); you’ll need a thesis, a governing and unifying proposition; you’ll need supporting details; you’ll need a section anticipating criticisms and answering them; and you’ll need a conclusion that mentions some larger implications, even though you’ll say that exploring them is “beyond the scope of the present paper.” 

Now that’s 5 or 6 design features. You may not need them all, but you will need most of them. Note that we put these features not in a List but in a left-to-right paragraph. They’re harder to follow that way, so it’s time for a LIST (there’s just something about a List): 

Fascinting Introduction 

Great Importance

Succinct Thesis

Supporting Details 

Answered Criticisms

Larger Implications

And then, of course, as you decorate the Designer List you will write in the functionaldetailsthat serve each feature. Before we leave this section, here are two tips. 

First, you may not be able to plot this whole thing out in a fuilly-evolved Designer List right away. You may have to build your List by doing some writing in order to test out what you know and what you think and what you need to bone up on. You should go back to the List as you go, but don’t necessarily expect to construct the finished product right away, top down, and then start to write, command-control, according to it. This, by the way, is also not how the lion and cow got here. They got here using the first method, not the second. Or so the evidence says.   

Second, make sure that your details are functionalto each section. Supporting details that underlay your thesis should go in that section and not in the answering-criticisms section; or vice-versa. In other words, don’t give a lion cow’s teeth. 

Your turn! Design a great product. 

What sorts of Lists hae we left out? Send any comments to 

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