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Education and Learning, Learning

Cheat Sheets for Learning

I was reminded this week of having students set up “cheat sheets” to support them during exams. Instructors will call these tools many different things, but the gist is that it is a document of a set size that students can prep in advance and are allowed to bring into an exam scenario. My favourite story about one of these circulated online several years ago. The instructor said students could bring in a 3 x 5 card but didn’t specify the units. The student, supposedly, brought in a 3-foot x 5-foot card. I say that the student deserved points for close reading of directions. Anyway, I thought I would look into the research on the use of cheat sheets to see if they actually help, if there are any equity issues, and what innovative strategies are out there.

Do they help?

There’s enough research on this topic that I turned to the literature reviews of others to get some answers a little quicker. Danielian and Buswell (2019) found in their literature review that instructor-created cheat sheets do not improve exam performance or reduce student anxiety. But the research on student-created sheets is more positive. Although the quality of the sheet has an impact, a number of studies have shown that student-created sheets improve exam performance and reduce student anxiety. Song and Thuente found that students with high-quality sheets had higher course performance overall (as cited by Danielian & Buswell). However, this does not apply to all types of courses. Students in courses with high levels of content knowledge don’t tend to benefit significantly; whereas students in courses with significant process knowledge do. However, the research also shows that “there is a need for instructors to become more involved in how students create support sheets, and to give guidance on how and what content they record” (Danielian & Buswell, 2019, p. 4 of 12).

Their own study indicated that particular characteristics are connected to exam performance. For example, students who made annotations on their cheat sheets to explain certain notes benefited. Students without annotations had significantly reduced performance. The density of the sheet also plays a role. Having the sheet mostly filled is good, but cramming things in so that it is really dense is not. Finally, even if the instructor (or researcher) can’t decipher the organization of the cheat sheet, if the student knows how they organized it, it has a positive impact.

Are there equity issues?

I couldn’t find anything that explicitly discussed this topic but I did find some results that raise it as a potential concern. Song and Thuente (2015) found that the quality of a cheat sheet varies significantly between students at the top of the class and students at the bottom. Further, the quality of the cheat sheet was closely connected to students’ grades. On the surface, this might not seem to be an equity issue; however, to me, it clearly has that potential. I have taught enough students to know that some have learned more study skills than others. This difference arises through both their past education but also the supports that they have access to outside of school including mentorship from family and friends, financial ability to access additional resources like study skills workshops, and time available to invest in the development of the cheat sheet. I have seen a lot of students who are unfamiliar with how to do things like summarize content in their own words or extrapolate between related but different types of problems. Who don’t have access to supports outside of the institution. And can’t take the time away from supporting themselves and their families to create additional resources.

What is important though is that Song and Thuente (2015) found that students who could improve the quality of their cheat sheets between exams achieved higher grades later on. So, if we can provide more support for students on developing effective cheat sheets, and perhaps allocate time to their development in class, all students are likely to benefit.

As an aside, I also saw in lots of the descriptions of cheat sheets that they were often required to be handwritten. This is also a potential equity issue as not every student has the writing (and handwriting) ability to produce a handwritten sheet. I understand the premise that the student is more likely to have put something into their own words if they can’t just copy and paste, but this ignores the limitations that other individuals might experience and likely results in poorer quality cheat sheets for some.

What innovations exist?

This is definitely a personal question. What direction are teachers taking this resource and what are the benefits or downsides? While they weren’t used as cheat sheets, I used to teach courses where students created unit summaries as an assignment. The format of these was open, and it was not unusual for me to leave the classroom when these were submitted with a cart full of brochures, board games, and posters. It was an awkward but fun assignment to mark. I also found that students who opted for creative outlets often, anecdotally, performed better on the exams. However, this assignment still raised equity issues regarding who had the time, money, and support to create the more elaborate assignments.

Creativity is a critical part of being a scientist but if you ask students many will say they are not creative. It seems to me that we have given creativity a narrow definition that sends a message that creativity is what happens in fine arts or creative writing but not in other parts of our lives. However, creativity is essential to problem-solving and question-asking. As a result, Oliveira and colleagues (2022) investigated how pictographic cheat sheets could support students’ creative cognition. I personally love this. I did my doctoral research using participant photography and occasionally bring it into my courses through activities like finding or creating an image represents each part of the digestive system. The challenge to my students is for them to really think about what the functions of a particular part and how they might represent that. They don’t forget the functions after this activity.

In this study, no words or numbers were allowed on a cheat sheet created for an undergraduate biology course. They had to rely on drawings and images. Most of the students created their sheets by modifying ideas and images that had been presented in the course. This, however, makes sense if students have not been exposed to this approach previously and if they don’t see themselves as having particular artistic or creative skills. I constantly draw horrible drawings on the board for my students when I teach biology thanks to my poor drawing skills, but as a student, I probably would have just pulled someone else’s and then modified it for my purposes. The authors also highlight that the fact that these cheat sheets were being created for exams likely introduced an added level of stress that could have diminished the students’ creativity. The findings, however, were generally positive. While they didn’t seem to examine the connection to student scores, they did find that it supported students’ creative cognition.

Are there any best practices?

These are more general. As I mentioned, many require them to be handwritten. But, from what I found, there is no evidence to support this and there can be equity issues associated with this requirement. I think the biggest recommendation I have after looking at the research is that we need to provide students with guidance and time to create these tools in order for them to be effective for a wider population. Among the guidance should be how much content to include, how to generalize examples, and how to annotate the sheet for better understanding.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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