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Teaching Tip: The Question of Crib Sheets

March 19, 2013

cheat sheetMost of us are familiar with the strategy: students are allowed to bring into the exam a card or sheet of paper that they’ve prepared beforehand and that contains information they think might help them answer exam questions. I loved the strategy when I was a student. I could spend hours deciding what I should put on the 4 x 6 note card I was allowed to take into a statistics exam. I thought I was just figuring out what went on the card, but in fact, I was sorting out, prioritizing, and integrating the content of the course. Of course, being a quant person, I often decided on what I needed and then reduced the size so that when I got it on the card I almost needed a magnifying glass to read it. I recall that my renowned professor, Al Simone, was really impressed by my ingenuity (but I still got a B on the exam).

And yet, in decades of teaching, I never permitted students to use these “cheat sheets”. Now, teaching expert Dr. Maryellen Weimer writes, in Faculty Focus (Feb. 27,2013), “How often in your professional life do you have a limited time window and no access to resources or expertise? There are occasions, but they aren’t all that frequent. In this age of technology, we need to be purposefully teaching students how to access, organize, and apply information.” Students respond positively to the crib sheet strategy, she adds. ‘They don’t talk about how preparing the sheet helps them prioritize and organize content. They see the cards as stress relievers”, able to retrieve 3-4 important points they don’t have to worry about forgetting.

One faculty member told Dr. Weimer that he has students attach their crib sheets to the exam when they turn it in. He finds on the cards information students needed to answer a question but they didn’t or couldn’t apply it to a particular problem– a great discussion topic for the exam debrief session. After showing some examples, it’s pretty easy to make the point that a student can memorize material, or in this case have it right there, but if he doesn’t know how to use it, the information is pretty much worthless.

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