Use Of Bullet Points In Essays

Lin Norton's own Damascene conversion to fully engaged learning informs her pedagogical research.

Is higher education becoming a pseudo-experience? Lin Norton, professor of pedagogical research at Liverpool Hope University, believes that a climate in which students are seen as "customers" threatens the high quality of a university education.

Professor Norton, who this week gave her inaugural lecture, said academics must resist student pressure to overexplain what they had to do to get particular grades. It might seem useful to explain assessment criteria, Professor Norton said, but her research shows that this leads students to focus on superficial issues rather than on what they should be learning. "I've had third-year students ask, 'is it all right to put bullet points in an essay?' or 'when you say you want journal articles, how many?'"

Higher education has the power to transform people's lives by changing their ways of thinking, but this is undermined if degree courses are reduced to telling students what they need to do, she said. "You can't commodify wisdom or citizenship."

Professor Norton did not go directly into higher education as she was ill during her A levels and did not do as well as expected. She became a librarian and then studied psychology and English as a mature student. "I worked my socks off but wasn't getting high grades. Then I realised they didn't want cut and paste, they wanted your input. It was a real road to Damascus experience. All my life I've done research in the area of student learning because I believe in it so passionately."

Students did not always know what was best for them, she said. "If you ask whether they'd rather have easily digested material that they can regurgitate or do a lot of work where it might not be clear where they're going but they would be wrestling with difficult ideas, most students would choose the first."

APA has rules on seriation to help the reader see the organization of key elements within sections, paragraphs and/or sentences in a paper. When using seriated lists, choose terms or phrases that are similar or in parallel throughout the list.

There are three types of seriation that APA allows. Each is identified and given in the examples below:

Numbered Lists

The chart uses colors to denote the following:

     1. Red for stop

     2. Yellow for caution

     3. Green for proceed

NOTE: Some may interpret items in a numbered list to be presented in order of importance.

Bulleted Lists

APA allows for three types of seriated lists:

  • Numbered lists
  • Bulleted lists
  • Lowercase letters within parentheses

Lowercase letters within parentheses

This form of seriation is used in a sentence or paragraph.  For example:

In the study, patients were given (a) the trial drug, (b) no drug, or (c) a placebo.

If you are reproducing, quoting, or paraphrasing a list taken from a source, the citation would appear at the end of the last item. Include a semicolon (;) at the end of each listed item to inform the reader that all of the information in the list is from the resources cited. Two variations on how that type of citation might look are below:

Elisabeth Kulber-Ross is widely credited with identifying five stages of grief that many people go through when facing a terminal illness:

  • denial;
  • anger;
  • bargaining;
  • depression;
  • acceptance (Hebert, Moore & Rooney, 2011, para. 9).


Hebert, Moore and Rooney (2011) indicate that Elisabeth Kulber-Ross is widely credited with identifying five stages of grief that many people go through when facing a terminal illness:

  • denial;
  • anger;
  • bargaining;
  • depression;
  • acceptance (para. 9).


Formatting a seriated list

APA suggests NO INDENTATION for lists in manuscripts, though it does indicate that final publications will have these sections indented. Since student papers are final publications, you can make a solid case for using your word processor's normal indent for bulleted or numbered lists (1/2 inch or 1 tab). However, do ask your instructor if they have a preference one way or another.  Also, lists should follow APA formatting rules and be double spaced.

Here is a chart from APA that will help you pick which type of seriation to use:


What do you want to do with your series of items?LetteredNumberedBulleted
Clarify the elements without drawing overmuch attention to the list itself  
Visually separate the list from the surrounding text 
Show procedural steps 
Show a chronology (first, second, third) 
Show how items have relative importance (e.g., increasing or decreasing in importance) 
Show a general list, with no implied chronology, procedure, order, or differences in importance 



American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication Manual of the American Pscyhological Association.

Chicago, IL: Author.

Hebert, K., Moore, H. & Rooney, J. (2011). The nurse advocate in end-of-life care.

The Ochsner Journal (11)4: 325-329. Retrieved from

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