Do Cheat Sheets Actually Work?

Oct 22, 2019

Teacher: For history tests, I have my students make a cheat sheet that I allow them to use. It works great.

Gibbs: What’s on the cheat sheet?

Teacher: They’re allowed to put whatever information they like on the cheat sheet.

Gibbs: I would put passages of Scripture and quotes from Herodotus, Thucydides, and Horace on my cheat sheet.

Teacher: Well, those kind of quotes wouldn’t do you much good.

Gibbs: How come?

Teacher: Because I don’t ask about those things on history tests.

Gibbs: What kind of things do you ask about on history tests?

Teacher: I ask for the dates of the Punic Wars, the Macedonians Wars. I ask for lists of Roman emperors. There’s a lot of definitions they need to know for matters pertaining to Greek and Roman architecture, religion, government. My students have to know all the gods. That sort of thing.

Gibbs: Do you, by any chance, also give them study sheets where you tell them everything that’s going to be on the test.

Teacher: I do, in fact.

Gibbs: So, you tell your students, “Next Friday, I’m going to ask you to name all the Greek gods,” then you tell them to write down the names of all the gods, then you ask them to write down the names of those gods again on the test?

Teacher: Yes.

Gibbs: Why don’t you just let them use their phones for the test?

Teacher: Because in creating the cheat sheet, they actually learn the material better and easier than if they just study their notes.

Gibbs: What do you mean when you by “better and easier”?

Teacher: I mean students who make cheat sheets for a test retain the cheat sheet information for a longer period of time than if they “memorize” the material from their notes, as is traditional.

Gibbs: How long would you say students retain the information on the cheat sheet as compared with the traditional method?

Teacher: I don’t know, but I know that people remember more if they write it down than if they merely read it.

Gibbs: Do your students take notes in class?

Teacher: Yes.

Gibbs: Then why have them make cheat sheets? Isn’t it enough they’ve written the material down in their notes?

Teacher: The repetition of writing it down helps them remember.

Gibbs: So, if they only write the material once in their notes, they won’t remember it. But if they write it twice, they’ll remember it… for how long?

Teacher: I don’t know, but I know it works better.

Gibbs: Do you give cumulative tests at the end of the year?

Teacher: I do.

Gibbs: Are students allowed to make cheat sheets for those cumulative tests?

Teacher: Yes.

Gibbs: Do the cumulative cheat sheets contain information students have already put on previous cheat sheets?

Teacher: Yes, but that’s just prudence.

Gibbs: I’m still not sure why you don’t just let your students use their phones for tests.  

Teacher: That seems cheap.

Gibbs: Did you have teachers who allowed you to use cheat sheets when you were in high school?

Teacher: I did. It worked great. I always did really well on tests. Look, plenty of people out in the professional world use cheat sheets. Coaches have lists of plays. I use notes for my lectures, which are kind of like cheat sheets. Chefs use recipes. Mathematicians use calculators.

Gibbs: When you were in high school, which teachers allowed you to use cheat sheets? I mean, what subjects did they teach?

Teacher: World history. British history. Biology. Literature.

Gibbs: Would you need a cheat sheet to pass exams in those subjects today?

Teacher: Probably, but what’s your point? I’m no hypocrite. I allow my students the same. I don’t require them to do something I can’t do.  

Gibbs: Why would you need a cheat sheet to pass those exams? You said cheat sheets help you retain the information for longer.

Teacher: I mean, maybe for a few weeks. I don’t mean for a lifetime.

Gibbs: Do your students save their cheat sheets at the end of the year?

Teacher: I don’t know. I have no way of knowing.

Gibbs: Do you have any of the cheat sheets you made in high school.

Teacher: No.

Gibbs: Then your students probably don’t either. Why do you imagine students throw cheat sheets away, then?

Teacher: Because they’re not going to be asked that information again.

Gibbs: And if they are asked for that information again, how will they acquire it?

Teacher: Well, I imagine they’ll just look up the answer on their phones.

Gibbs: If your students aren’t going to remember the material beyond the year, and if they throw their cheat sheets away at the end of the year, why don’t you just let them use their phones on the test?

Teacher: Look, cheat sheets are used by all kinds of professionals. Like I said, even I use lecture notes.

Gibbs: Do you hold on to your notes at the end of the year?

Teacher: Of course.

Gibbs: Do chefs hold on to recipe cards or do they throw them away after they use them?

Teacher: I imagine they hold on to them.

Gibbs: Does a football coach throw away his list of plays at the end of every game?

Teacher: No, of course not.

Gibbs: Why do your students throw away their cheat sheets, then?

Teacher: Like I said, they don’t need to know the information on the cheat sheet anymore.

Gibbs: If you want to liken cheat sheets for tests to a teacher using notes, a chef using recipes, or a coach using a list of plays, you’re going to have to ask questions on your tests which give the student some incentive to keep the cheat sheet for a long time.

Teacher: What kind of questions might those be?

Gibbs: Questions wherein quotations from Scripture, Herodotus, Hesiod, and Horace would be valuable.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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