Somebody doesn’t understand how teaching works

I rolled my eyes at this story: Forget Cheat ‘Sheet’ — Student Outwits Professor With Enormous ‘Cheat Poster’. The gist of it is that a professor told their students they could bring a 3×5 card with notes to an exam — but he didn’t specify the units (there’s a lesson right there), so one student created a crib sheet that was 3 feet by 5 feet. The professor was good natured about it, as I would be in such a situation, but the article completely misses the point.

The purpose of the exam is to evaluate learning, not the ability to read stuff off a card. I’ve occasionally given open-note exams, and told the students they can even bring their textbook if they want. It doesn’t matter all that much. Those kinds of exams are asking, do you understand the concepts? Can you apply them correctly? Can you think creatively and synthesize multiple ideas? I think students are all aware of this: if the professor lets you bring in notes of any kind, the test is not going to be about literal transcription of facts from one piece of paper to another.

The professor was not outwitted at all. If anything, they might feel a little chagrined at a loophole that tricks a student into wandering around campus with an awkwardly huge notecard. And they probably figure creating that ‘cheat sheet’ was a useful study exercise for the student, so no problem — if they mastered the material, good for them.


  1. says

    I always specify units of measure when I allow a reference notecard on an exam or quiz. It was a simple oversight by the professor to omit that. On the other hand, it was hardly a coup by the student who created a notecard as large as a bath towel. It was just a silly stunt, mildly amusing. My own students sometimes complain that being allowed to use a notecard didn’t help, because they never needed to refer to it during the exam. They already remembered everything on it. (I require that notecards be handwritten and hold them responsible for errors on it, so careful proofreading is strongly encouraged.) Of course, I commiserate with students who discover they didn’t need their notecards because they accidentally learned stuff. Oops! I guess that happens when they painstakingly scour the pages of their textbooks looking for key facts and formulas to write down. :)

  2. jtdavi3 says

    I studied aerospace engineering in college before going to medical school. The open book tests in engineering were far, far harder than any test I took in med school. It wasn’t about memorizing equations, it was testing their application, which is far more complex.
    Med school tests generally do devolve into rote memorization (anatomy, biochem, pharmacology, etc.). It’s one of the largest failings of traditional medical training.

  3. cartomancer says

    My policy with this sort of thing is generally to let students (I teach primarily 16-18 year olds when anyone feels like employing me) decide whether they need to use their notes or not on a case by case basis. They know that, eventually, they will have to do their final exams without any aids. It’s up to them to work towards being in a position where they can. Some of them feel utterly at sea with no notes for quite a while. Others challenge themselves to do it blind right from the beginning. Most are somewhere in the middle. The psychology of each one is different, and encouraging them to take charge of their own learning is important in itself. Almost always they end up not using the notes at all in plenty of time. The alternative – insisting on on or other mode of activity – invariably disadvantages some of them. When I was more arbitrary about this I often ended up with one or two of the less confident ones producing nothing of note because they freaked out and panicked. I’d far rather they concentrate on putting together a decent argumentative essay using information from their notes than writing frantic nonsense with no connection to the topic at hand.

  4. robro says

    I think students are all aware of this…

    Your students might be aware of this, but my one isn’t. He considers tests to be a form of pedagogical torture. Or he did. Now that he’s a TA he may have a different stance since he gets paid for administering and grading tests.

    …they probably figure creating that ‘cheat sheet’ was a useful study exercise for the student…

    My friend the English ESL instructor would say, “Absolutely.” He feels that connecting hand, eye, and brain is a powerful learning tool. He sometimes dictates short stories to his students, then they cut up the words, paste them onto playing cards, and play a form of word poker with them. While the students are working together on this task, they sit around the table together talking…in English. Very tricky of him.

  5. Derek Vandivere says

    I was a weird kid. The summer before high school, I went to a 2 week math camp at U Maryland, College Park. Did 3 1/2 years of math in two weeks, but I was also fascinated with spy books and that kind of thing (hey, I was 12). So my experiment: for one of the tests, I prepared a cheat sheet by writing on both sides of a stick of Doublemint gum. I finished the test, THEN unwrapped the gum, made sure I could still read it, then chewed. Didn’t use it to cheat; used it to see if it was a good technique.

  6. nathanieltagg says

    Any reasonable proffie would think it was _funny_ and let it through. Plus the reasons PZ gives above.

    The only interesting thing here is that there’s documentation, unlike earlier urban legends. My favorite was an open-book exam where a professor tells students that they can bring in any resource they can carry, so one guy carries in a grad student.

  7. Danny Husar says

    When I was in Uni, my professor told us about a student who split a standard A letter sized ‘cheat sheet’ *vertically* into two really thin A letter size ‘cheat sheets’ with notes on all four sides.

    But yeah, when you’re a student you look at school as a horse-race to get through with the highest marks possible. In my University engineering program, they load you up with a ton of course-work, require a full course-load, and kill you on mid-terms and exams. There really isn’t any other way to get through the first 2 years besides just trying to survive each semester and cutting every corner you (legally) can before you develop an intuition of the expectations and ‘the game’ in later years. Lots of kids had major problems with that kind of program structure, even when they were talented enough. My buddy was one of those kids. He was smart, but he had this level of OCD where he simply couldn’t move on from an exam question until he answered it fully. Most exams were purposely designed with restricted time allowance and sometimes if you ran into a question or a proof that you knew was going to take you one or two hours to figure out, you had leave it and move on. He couldn’t, and he struggled mightily. Did great on assignments and projects, but flunked exams and mid-terms.

  8. says

    Way back in high school, our history teacher would allow us to bring in cheat sheets. The rules were explicit (hand written, by you, one side of a single sheet of notebook paper, etc)

    The thing was, though, he would roll a d6 right before passing out the exams. Odd result, we got to use our notes. Even, no notes.

    I ended up accidently actually studying for that class, as did many of my fellow students who were not normally prone to such behavior.

    Sneaky teacher :)

  9. Artor says

    At some point in grade school, I was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address, but I blew it off until the night before the test. So I scraped the paint off a pencil and transcribed the whole thing onto it, two lines to a side, with an ultra-fine mechanical pencil. I didn’t think I’d really need the Address committed to memory ever again, so I didn’t feel bad about cheating that way.

  10. madtom1999 says

    Its important to learn how things work – especially maths and a bit of physics. Once you’ve got that a few hours with the CRC (rubber book) and you can build the world – and blow it up with style.

  11. Mobius says

    I remember taking a physics class (thermodynamics IIRC). Calculators were allowed, of course, but for most of the tests notes were not. Several of the students would spend huge amounts of time programing formulae into their graphing calculators and would end up having no clue how to apply the formulae.

    The professor did, for the final exam, allow everyone to bring an 8.5 x 11 (inch) sheet of notes. This was specifically to address the (possible) advantage the owners of graphing calculators had (which were a fairly new thing at the time and pretty expensive).

  12. mordred says

    My course on basic programming at university ended with an open book test. There was no limit to what kind or number of books we could bring, and test then consisted of questions about basic Java commands.

    During the (bad) lectures I already got the impression the professor was a lazy sod who did not take the whole thing serious…

    I’m glad the rest of the faculty were much better teachers, I never took another class with this guy.

  13. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Unverified, but plausible:

    At Caltech, one of the textbooks used for a physics class was authored
    by Prof Feynman. Caltech uses an honor system and the exams are take-home
    exams. The instructions for the exam read: “You have three hours. You may
    use your class notes and Feynman.” The student took the exam to Feynman’s
    office, and he agreed that the instructions included him as a valid
    resource. Feynman completed the exam in half an hour and the student got a
    perfect score. Starting the following year the exam instructions were much
    more restrictive.

  14. GiantPanda says

    A long time ago I aced a physics exam by condensing the text. Start with 100 pages of lecture/textbook notes. Summarize to 20 pages. Leave out everything I know, 5 pages left. Again. Again. Memorize the last few lines.

  15. mnb0 says

    “I’ve occasionally given open-note exams, and told the students they can even bring their textbook if they want. It doesn’t matter all that much.”
    I’ve tried it once with 14, 15 years old pupils in Suriname. If anything the results were worse because they did too much looking up and copying and not nearly enough independent thinking.
    My former teacher physics almost told the same almost 40 years ago.

  16. Rich Woods says

    @Snarki #15:

    Unverified, but plausible

    It does indeed sound like Feynman. You can almost hear him chuckling for the full half-hour.

    And then him going out and getting pissed and playing the bongos at a strip joint. No-one’s perfect.

  17. DanDare says

    Its funny how people think about exams and cheating. In most cases a teacher is finding out how well they have aided a student in learning. I have been in exams where that requires students to end up helping each other and they don’t because that’s cheating.

  18. wcorvi says

    I took an upper division water treatment class in Env Engineering. The teacher admonished us to THINK on the exams. Then she put eight questions that would take minimum 15 minutes to solve – in a one-hour exam! WHEN were we supposed to think? The questions required a bit of thought to figure out the best approach. The worst of it was, after the hour (and us writing as frantically as possible), she’d give us an extra 20 minutes. Then another 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I had another class right after, which had quizzes first thing, and if I showed up late, that time was taken from the quiz. So, it became a study in which course to fail.