This is a short post about teaching.

In a lower-level general education history course I am teaching this semester at ASU, I encourage students to make a small handwritten study sheet (a.k.a. "crib sheet" or "cheat sheet") to use in class while taking each exam, to jog their memories, help them better marshal specific evidence to use in their answers, and reduce exam anxiety.1 I also hoped the process of preparing the handwritten sheet would be a valuable study exercise, encouraging them to comprehensively scan the material as they looked for facts to include, and reinforcing key concepts by writing them on the sheet.2

When the day of the midterm exam arrived, I was surprised to see that not all students had made study sheets. In fact, only 15 out of 24 students (62.5%) made them. I collected the sheets with the exams, and later, when recording my grades, I noted whether or not each student had made a study sheet, so I could see if creating a sheet made a difference in their performance on the midterm.

sheet students mean (of 40) std dev mean (pct)
With 15 32.93 2.62 82.3%
Without 9 28.50 6.47 71.3%

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each group showed a range of outcomes. In general, those who made the sheets did better on the exam than those who did not -- the average score was 9% higher for those with study sheets. No study sheet user received a grade below a mid-C. For those students without study sheets, the range was greater, spanning failing grades all the way to a couple of As. (The exam was worth 40 points; the final table column adjusts the mean scores to a percentage basis.)

This is of course a very small set of results, doubtlessly showing the influence of more factors than the single issue of having a crib sheet or not which I've examined here. It seems quite possible, for instance, that some students who didn't make a study sheet also didn't study comprehensively for the exam, which would mean use of a study sheet might simply be a marker of students with better study habits. The data is not fine-grained enough to see if the improvement for crib sheet users was seen in the multiple choice/short answer questions, the essay questions, or both. But in any case the outcome is clear enough to me to continue to encourage students to make a study sheet when they have an opportunity to do so.

  1. The literature on the effectiveness of study sheets is generally positive, though few researchers attribute major performance gains to them. See for example Brigitte Erbe, "Reducing Test Anxiety While Increasing Learning: The Cheat Sheet, College Teaching 55, no. 3 (2007): 96-98, DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.55.3.96-98; and Afshin Gharib and William Phillips, "Test Anxiety, Student Preferences and Performance on Different Exam Types in Introductory Psychology," International Journal of e-Education, e-Business, e-Management and e-Learning 3, no. 1 (February 2013): 1-6, DOI: 10.7763/IJEEEE.2013.V3.183.  ↩

  2. Some research suggests that crib sheets do not effectively help students learn the material; see Thomas N. Dorsel and Gary W. Cundiff, "The Cheat-Sheet: Efficient Coding Device or Indispensable Crutch?" The Journal of Experimental Education 48, no. 1 (Fall 1979): 39-42. These authors, both psychologists, determined this by asking students to prepare crib sheets before a short, voluntary exam. The professors then took the sheets away from some students. The students without cheat sheets then did not do as well on the test as those who got to use the sheet they had prepared, showing that the crib sheets functioned as a "crutch" but not a device that had helped students internalize information during pre-test studying. The applicability of this study to longer, mandatory exams is not clear; also unreported is whether any student wished to bop the researchers on the nose. ↩

Did I tell you about this method? I have done this since I began teaching. Learned it from Dr. Ervine Crawford! I think your statistical analysis is correct in pointing out that there is a correlation between using one and achievement but I think you are also correct in bringing up that it could be that those with developed study habits may be the beneficiaries because those habits would be present whether you allowed it or not. Personally, at the high school level, I may have had more influence to get more of the students to complete the activity. Nice to see!
Comment by pike702 terribly early Thursday morning, April 14th, 2016