September 3rd, 2008

Research on Crib Sheets


I am often amazed by the amount of pedagogical research a seemingly simple straightforward instructional strategy can generate. Take crib sheets, for example—you know, when faculty allow students to prepare a card or sheet of notes that they can then use during an exam.

There’s a new study published in a recent issue of Teaching of Psychology which lists seven other studies, and I know of several others not referenced there as well as a number of anecdotal accounts we’ve published in The Teaching Professor. Findings as to the benefits of this particular approach are definitely mixed. This recent Teaching of Psychology study found that when students expected to use their crib sheets but then were not allowed to, they performed significantly less well than when they used crib sheets. This finding caused these two researchers to conclude that “constructing crib sheets did not enhance learning.” (p.117)

However, even though I don’t think other research has used this exact design, some researchers have found that crib sheets do improve performance; others have found just the opposite. Part of the problem is that crib sheets are being constructed and used differently across this research. A crib sheet made for use when taking a multiple-choice exam in psychology has got to be different than one made for use on a problem-solving exam in engineering.

One pretty consistent finding relates to how crib sheets help students deal with exam anxiety. In the Teaching of Psychology study almost 80 percent reported that making a crib sheet reduced their stress during an exam. An interesting side note: despite the conclusion of the researchers, almost 92 percent of the students in this study reported that the crib sheet was somewhat or very helpful in their attempts to learn the material. Maybe the test didn’t measure what they learned or maybe the students were wrong about what helps them learn.

Lots of points (none terribly related) that could be made here: One relates to how working professionals are expected to demonstrate content knowledge and whether, under most circumstances, they might not be allowed some access to content (making crib sheets less a kind of legitimized cheating and more a device for figuring out what you’re going to be expected to know). Another relates how important it is for faculty using any strategy to know what kind of learning results it produces when they use it with their content and students. And finally there’s the continuing lack of integration of the pedagogical knowledge base and how regularly studies are the isolated inquiries that on a good day connect with some work done in that field but on most days ignore the world beyond the homeroom.

Reference: Dickson, K. L., and Bauer, J. J. (2008). Do students learning course material during crib sheet construction? Teaching of Psychology, 35 (2), 117-120.

—Maryellen Weimer