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Are “cheat sheets” useful for students?

When I allowed students to take cheat sheets into exams, I thought I was helping them.  Now, I am not so sure.

My reason for allowing cheat sheets was that it helped students structure their revision for the exam.  By having to compress the subject down to two A4 pages of hand writing, students were encouraged to summarise the unit and to select the most important elements to put on the cheat sheets.

I have not allowed students to use cheat sheets for a few years.  I discussed the reasons why in my last post.  A number of my colleagues still allow students to use cheat sheets.  I have marked some of the exams when cheat sheets were allowed and I have reviewed the marking on other exams when cheat sheets were allowed.  What I have observed is that students can only answer an exam question when they have the answer on their cheat sheets; if its not there then they do not know how to answer.

One of my colleagues had a great example of this.  One of the tasks second-year accounting students find most challenging is to reconcile profit to operating cash flow.  In lectures and tutorials the more complex elements of this reconciliation are stressed.  In the exam, my colleague set a question asking students to demonstrate one of the simpler elements of this process.  Many students could not get the correct answer and wrote a solution for one of the more complex elements instead; the conclusion we drew was that they had a worked example of the complex elements on their cheat sheets and they copied it into their examination book.

When I reflected on this, I pondered whether allowing cheat sheets was encouraging surface learning rather than the deep learning we should be seeking (Biggs 2003 Teaching for Quality Learning at University 2nd Ed.).  If this is the case then students would be better off (in terms of their learning) if cheat sheets were not permitted.

I have not searched the literature for any research on this.  If any readers are aware of any research I would appreciate being directed to it.

A colleague had a different perspective on cheat sheets; he argued that students will take cheat sheets into the exam whether they are allowed on not.  The only difference is where the cheat sheets are stored; on their desk or in their underwear.  Allowing cheat sheets stopped the feigned incontinence and diarrhoea.  He argued that honest students were at a disadvantage if cheat sheets were banned; allowing cheat sheets levelled the playing field.

I am not sure if he is right and, if he is, if allowing cheat sheets is the best way to minimise cheating.  I would appreciate hearing others’ views and experiences on this.

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