Online Outliners

Online outliners such as WorkFlowy allow you to create lists with an infinite number of hierarchical levels: items, sub items, sub sub items, and so on. With the click of a button, you can open an item to reveal its sub levels, and with another click you can close them. You can move items from one level to another simply by dragging and dropping them. Online outliners are an effective way to manage, display, and share large amounts of structured information. Have a look at this example. Try opening and closing some of the levels. 

Best Practices

  1. Use online outliners as a presentation tool: begin by showing your students the "top level" of your presentation. Then, open the first item in the top level to reveal its sub levels. Discuss each sub level in turn. When you have displayed all the sub levels in that item, close it and then open the second item in the top level to reveal its sublevels. Discuss those sub levels, and so on. Consider this example of an online outline that was used as a presentation tool at a retreat for science educators.
  2. Have your students begin work on a major project (such as an end-of-term essay) by using an online outliner to create a well-developed outline, which they then share with you. 
  3. Use an online outliner to organize information pertaining to your own research projects. 

Evidence of Efficacy

  • "Two parallel studies were conducted with junior medical students to determine what influence the forms of lecture notes would have on learning. The three types of notes given to the students were: a comprehensive manuscript of the lecture containing text, tables, and figures; a partial handout which included some illustrations but required substantial annotation by the students; and a skeleton outline containing no data from the lecture.... the students performances on tests generally were better for those who had received partial or skeleton handout format." -- Effects of three types of lecture notes on medical student achievement, 1983.
  • "The results of Experiments 1 and 2 clearly showed that both outlines and headings facilitated readers' recall of text. Further, the results of Experiment 3 indicated that outlines facilitated readers' ability to place paraphrased versions of statements taken from the text into an order matching that of the text.... Outlines and headings based on outlines have a significantly beneficial effect on readers' recall of text." -- The effect of outlines and headings on readers' recall of text, 1989.
  • "Studies suggest that nearly all non-linear note-taking strategies (e.g. with an outline or a matrix framework) benefit learning outcomes more than does the linear recording of information." --Cognitive Effort during Note Taking (PDF), 2005.

Recommended Tools


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.

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Contact Mark Morton

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Online Outliners. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.