About 10 years ago I was intrigued when a colleague described taking exams at an Australian university, where he was given a blank sheet of paper on which he could write anything he wanted to take into the exam. He referred to this as a ‘cheat sheet’. I was familiar with both open and closed book exams, and their pitfalls, and also with providing a formula sheet to students in an exam. But this idea was something completely different, being an individualised exam accompaniment. I was even more intrigued to hear him say that the benefit of this sheet was that he had been forced to properly revise the material in the module so that he could work out what to include – there was no point wasting precious space writing down things he would be able to remember, but it was very important to write down things which he was afraid he would forget.
This memory stayed with me, and I always wanted to try out the idea myself, but couldn’t see how it could be implemented that easily in a centrally-administered exam. But then this year, as a way of creating a faux semester system for our finalists, we replaced the summer term exam with a department-administered class test in January for two modules. One of these was my final year statistics module on Multivariate Data Analysis, and so I seized my chance!
The idea of being able to take into the test an A4 sheet on which they could write anything they wanted to was well received by the students when I first announced it – it automatically relieved some of the pressure they felt about having to memorise formulae, or all steps in a proof. In terms of the effect on how I wrote the exam, this was no different really than writing an open book exam – there needed to be more emphasis on questions which applied the methods, or were open ended in what they were asking for, rather than requiring the statement of a formula or reproduction of a basic proof. However, this didn’t actually require much adjustment to my style of writing questions. Implementing the idea was also fairly straightforward. The module finished in the final week of the Autumn term, and the students handed in their ‘cheat sheet’ on the first day of the Spring term for me to photocopy onto coloured paper (to prevent any additional sheets being smuggled in!), and distribute at the start of the test. The (named) sheets were thrown away at the end of the test, to ensure they were not attached in any way to the anonymised answer booklets.
I’m pleased to say that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea was an unmitigated success. Although it is impossible to quantify its effect because of cohort effects, and the fact that the test was now in January rather than in the summer, feedback from the class about the idea has been positive and the marks were a little higher than in the past. The most gratifying thing for me though is hearing many students say that they didn’t actually need to look at their sheet in the exam, because they had spent so much time writing and rewriting the sheet to make sure it included everything they wanted it to, that they ended up learning and remembering all of the material anyway! So I seem to have educated my students by stealth! But all joking aside, I think that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea has benefits across the board and particularly when viewed from a diversity perspective. Different students will struggle with different things for different reasons. Letting them help themselves by constructing their own formula/information sheet which is tailored to their strengths and weaknesses acknowledges that diversity, and is one way to put students even more in control of their learning and also their attainment. I definitely encourage others to try this idea!