February 27th, 2013

Crib Sheets Help Students Prioritize and Organize Course Content


Most faculty are familiar with the strategy: students are allowed to bring into the exam a card or sheet of paper that they’ve prepared beforehand and that contains information they think might help them answer exam questions. I became convinced of the strategy’s value when my husband was an undergraduate. He and his engineering study buddies convened at our place the night before an exam to decide what they should put on the 4 x 6 note card they were allowed to take into a mechanical engineering course. They spent hours in heated discussion. They thought they were just figuring out what went on the card, but in fact they were sorting out, prioritizing, organizing, and integrating the content of the course. Their discussion accomplished that way more effectively than any review session I had conducted. Of course, being engineers, they decided on what they needed and then reduced the size so that when they got it on the card they needed a magnifying glass to read it.

Just recently it came to me that preparing one of these crib sheets might be an excellent activity for an in-class review session. If students attend the review session, they get to work with other students and prepare a crib sheet which they submit at the end of the session and will be returned attached to their exam. I think this would get most students attending the session and actually doing some substantive reviewing during it. If the activity started with a time of discussion (probably in a small groups) over what to put on the card, then the session could end with the blank cards being passed out and students having 15 minutes to make their individual cards.

I’ve talked with some faculty who call these cards “cheat sheets” and won’t let students use them under any circumstances. One told me, “Anything that’s on that sheet is something the student doesn’t have to learn.” I suppose it depends on the course and kind of exam, but in general, exam situations are pretty artificial. How often in your professional life do you have a limited time window and no access to resources or expertise? There are occasions, I know, but they aren’t all that frequent. And it seems to me that in this age of technology, we need to be purposefully teaching students how to access, organize, and apply information.

What students learn when creating their crib sheets
Students respond positively to the crib sheet strategy. They don’t talk about how preparing the sheet helps them prioritize and organize content. They see the cards as stress relievers. I remember one telling me, “I go into the exam with my card and I have at least three or four important things that I know I’m not going to forget.”

Another faculty member told me that he has students attach their crib sheets to the exam when they turn it in. He frequently finds on the cards information students needed to answer a question but they didn’t or couldn’t apply it to a particular problem. This situation makes a great discussion topic for the exam debrief session. After showing some examples, it’s pretty easy to make the point that a student can memorize material, or in this case have it right there, but if he doesn’t know how to use it, the information is pretty much worthless.

I’ve also heard of faculty grading the crib sheets, although I’ve never seen examples of the criteria used to assess them. I think it might be more beneficial to have students assessing the value and usefulness of the information they decided to put on their crib sheet. They could discuss or write responses to prompts like these:

  • How many questions on the exam did your crib sheet help you answer?
  • Did you have information on the crib sheet that you didn’t use at all?
  • How did you decide what to put on your crib sheet?
  • If you had the opportunity to revise your crib sheet, what changes would you make?
  • What have you learned from preparing this crib sheet that you want to remember when you make the next one?

If you have experience using this strategy or opinions about the use of cribs sheets in general, please share in the comment section below.

34 comments on “Crib Sheets Help Students Prioritize and Organize Course Content

  1. I allow my students to bring only hand-written crib sheets to ensure they have created them personally and prevent them from stuffing everything in with the smallest font possible. I believe the kinesthetic act of hand-writing their notes helps them to retain the information. The most common comment I get from students is surprise at how little they need to refer to their crib sheet during the test because actually have committed the information to memory. But the most valuable purpose of the crib sheets is to help reduce test anxiety (especially in a math test).

    • Your logic in using cards is mine exactly. I have had the same comments from students. I also only allow handwritten cards. I tell them I will take type-written cards. It isn't that the typing doesn't have the same effect as handwritting, but the handwritten card can't be passed en masse. I staple the cards to the exam when they turn them in for two purposes: (1) I can review them, and (2) they can't hand them off to another student when they walk out the door. The cards are returned so they can use them to consolidate for the comprehensive final.

      I also advise students, when explaining the parameters for the card, that if they take 15 minutes before the exam and quickly scribble some notes, it will do them no good. It is carefully preparing the card that has value.

      Test anxiety is a very real problem for some students. The card relieves that.

  2. So if we call the "Crib" sheets does that imply our students are still babies who cannot remember anything on their own… so they need cribs and sheets?

    I'm just asking!

    • I am careful not to call them "crib" sheets or even "cheat" sheets, which is even worse. I call them study sheets.

  3. I've used crib sheets for 20 years. I allowed them for the reasons you stated: students learned much from creating them. The only problem is that some students ended up not using them on the exam because in the process of writing the information down, they learned the material well enough that they didn't need to look at the crib sheet. Then, for the next exam, they didn't bring one and then did poorly on the exam. For classes in which I just had a midterm and a final, this was disastrous for students when the final was heavily weighted. I soon began giving at least three exams when I could.

  4. From a student's perspective, during the process of preparing for my Master's level comprehensive exams (6 of a possible 10 essay questions), I began by writing out my answers in full. Once I knew what I wanted to say I began compressing the points into outline form, gradually getting less and less detailed. By the time I was through, I had reduced each response (3 – 5 page answers) to the front of a 3 x 5 index card that I then used for review. Although not allowed to actually use the cards during the exam, the process of repeatedly prioritizing, organizing and compressing the points I wanted to make allowed me to easily recreate my answers under the timed conditions of the exam. If I had tried to remember the full essays I would never have been able to focus so effectively on the main points I wanted to make.

  5. I teach engineering. We hold a review session before each exam in which we create an equation sheet as a class that I provide along with the examination. The class engages first in small groups and then as a large group to decide which are the key equations that they need for reference on the exam. I start the session with a conept map exercise that sets the tone for what are the most important definitions, concepts, and skills. I agree with Beth that the act of making the "crib" sheet gets them well enough prepared that they don't need to reference it much during the test.

  6. In my college physics class we were allowed to bring in one sheet of paper (8.5"x11") with whatever hand-written notes we could fit on it, and use those notes on exams. I always prepared a sheet for the exams, but the funny thing is, I almost never used the sheet. The act of preparing it forced me to review the material, so by the time I got to the exam, I didn't need the sheet anymore.

    Bottom line: I learned the material, and I thought my professor was pretty cool for letting us use the crib sheets. Win-win!

  7. I sometimes allowed my physics and calculus students to make pre-prepared notes on one side of a 3"x5" index card. It was amazing how often I saw considerable "empty space," and students always commented that 1) preparing the notes was a great way to review, and 2) their confidence was boosted when they determined how little they actually needed on the card. Other strategies I have used along with this concept: Requiring them to submit their note cards a couple of days BEFORE the exam (discouraged "cramming"), allowing only a 1 square inch "cheat sheet" instead of a note card (even more prioritizing), and requiring them to submit their "cheat sheets" along with the exam (so that they could not be passed on to others – MAKING the notes are the important task!).

  8. I call them "Review Sheets" to help make it clear that preparing one (hand-written) helps them review for the exam. I also specify equations only — no words (in quantitative chemistry courses). This includes unit conversions and constants in the form of an equation. So they need to know something about the meaning of the equations in order to use them.

  9. I allow my economics students to have a 4 X 6 notecard with handwritten notes on it. They spend so much time going over my review tutorials and working so hard on putting the information on the notecard that when they finally take the test most of them don't even look at the notecard. They know the material! It works great!

  10. I am a physics professor in Flanders (Belgium) and I stimulate my students to make a good overview of the formulas and units they need to know. For that reason I called this a "formularium".. I think it is indeed a win-win situation: the students find it cool that they can use this sheet of paper during tests, while I am pleased they spend time reviewing before a test. I also want the sheets to be hand-written.

  11. I am not teaching at the college level but instead technical/vocational subjects. When students leave my courses they must be able to quickly recall and apply a wide range of often only occasionally useful knowledge covered in the class. Whatever we choose to call it I find creating crib notes extremely useful for getting the information to 'stick'. The process forces the student to analyze all the material and formulate what they feel will be most important or useful in their application of the material…all much higher learning activities than simply memorizing for the test. At the end of the day,my focus is on r helping them to be able to put their new knowledge to work in very demanding time-intensive work environments. There is so much to know in my field crib sheets (written, mind-mapped or online) are essential to keeping on top of my work.

  12. Brilliant!! This wasn't allowed when I was in Engineering school but this totally makes sense. The ability to synthesize and apply knowledge is more important than memorizing specific formulas. This puts more pressure on teachers to develop exams that test higher order thinking in accordance to Bloom's taxonomy ( knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking on a particular topic)

  13. I have for years allowed/encouraged students to create a crib sheet for exams. They must be handwritten, they must be handed in with the exam. i have not done an "official" study of the results but i am very certain that students, as the article stated, spend a lot of time organizing these crib sheets (some are done in amazing detail and color!) and by the time they are finished, they have the material down. When i ask students how the sheet helped them it typically comes out as 1.) i worked so hard on the crib sheet i didn't need it when it came to the test and 2.) just knowing i had this available if my mind went blank put me at ease so that i felt i could do this test even with my test anxiety.

    The students that put in the effort do better, those students that don't bother, nothing i could have done would have helped. This way it is the student's responsibility to manage their learning also. i work hard to present and facilitate material, the students have to put some effort in also. i have never had a complaint and i have never felt it detracted from their learning–win win for everyone.

  14. I teach undergraduate-level history. It has become pretty obvious to me (and I do tell students that) that the factual knowledge is, in real life, something that they would be able to find through easily accessible resources… and the minutiae is often what gets them needlessly stressed about taking exams. My purpose in assessment is not the retention of factual knowledge which, while important, is only useful as a support for the broader understanding of the historical dynamics and their complexity. As a result, I allow students to have access to their notes for the in-class open-book quizzes that take the place of midterms, but require that they summarise the entire term's important information (what they are likely to forget, timelines, mind maps — whatever works best for them) on two letter-size sheets that they can bring to the exam.
    This article and some of the comments above made me think, however, that I could go a few steps further and require review sheets for quizzes, organise review sessions where they would create said review sheets (and thus get a sense of how they are done), and collect the sheets. Thanks for the post.

  15. I consider the "crib sheet" to be my diabolical way of getting the students to review and study for the test. Otherwise, many of them wouldn't review or study for the test. I also find that most of them never refer to the "crib sheet" during the test. When teaching mathematics this is an excellent pressure valve.

  16. When I'm designing courses for business, we call them "Job Aids." Some companies keep this information accessible by a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. That's real-world and nobody considers it "cheating."

  17. This makes a lot of sense to me. I teach a Lifespan Development course that covers A LOT of info. These crib sheets sounds like a useful tool to study a lot of information for 2 larger exams. Just a question for those that use them,….do you allow them to write on both sides of a 4X6 card or just one?

  18. When NCLEX, the GRE, MCAT and similar tests allow "crib sheets" that's when I will allow them in my class. My approach is to teach students how to convert their notes into usable study tools. The first step is convincing them that the kinesthetic action of writing and re-writing the notes to create usable study tools accomplishes a surprising amount the learning they need to do. Learning begins with the acquisition, that acquisition takes time and effort. Yes, in the real world, information is often accessible, but I don't want my doctor or nurse using a crib sheet when I am dying on the gurney.

  19. I have used this technique for years for undergraduates, masters and doctoral students for 30 years. The “space” has grown from 3×5” cards, to 4xg” to full pages, depending on the students and exam. Of course it is the synthesis and organization of the material that does the trick. I have had student tell me they could still picture the content of their card several years later. I appreciate the stress reduction for the students (and if done well students will not need their cards much anyway). And having the basics down on a card means that I can ask more of the students—not just regurgitating material from the notes, but asking them to tackle questions of application that require knowledge of the material to formulate effective arguments. I don’t care if they write or type. I tell them they can put anything on their cards—recipes, photos of their dog, or class materials. And if they pass their card on to others, I suspect the notes will do the beneficiary little good. It is the preparation of the notes that makes the difference. Works like a charm. And, best of all, this strategy should tamp down or eliminate most cheating, which is a relief.

  20. I can certainly appreciate some of the comments regarding "learning beginning with acquisition" and I suppose if the courses being taught are simply to 'fill the bucket' with knowledge, memorization would certainly be essential. I guess it all goes back to how far up the Bloom's scale a course is intended to take a student.

    BioProf…next time you get a chance ask a local ER doc if you can see some of the "knowledge aids" they are (hopefully) using. You will feel much better about ending up on the gurney. 😉

  21. I found this discussion most helpful. I make up "study guides" for each chapter, that have matching of terms, fill in the blank, true/false and sentence completions. I allow the student to use the study guides on chapter quizzes, but not on chapter tests which cover several chapters. Many students have said the study guides really help them learn and I can tell who has really read and dug into the chapter to complete the guides. The scores on the quizes show the difference.
    After reading about using "crib sheets" I may try that on a couple chapters. The crib sheets sound like they require higher learning skills. However, anything that requires them to get into the book and apply the knowledge helps with learning. Thanks for all the great ideas.

    • I don't give exams in the traditional way because I teach writing, but I do use study guides as crib sheets. I create study guides for my writing classes. My guides ask specific questions about the essay or story's content and the writing.Then, the student is asked to add at least three points or pieces of information they feel would be critical if they had to write a paper about the concepts in that essay. [We can get some lively disagreements about these.] Students bring their completed guides to class and are much more comfortable discussing the texts and asking questions of each other. As the term goes on I find fewer of them referring to their crib notes because they've become better readers, thinkers, and discussants. They tell me they like them because they have a better idea of how to read this kind of material–which they didn't get in high school. They also then use their cribbed notes as they write their papers. Their writing improves with more depth and, consequently, their grades improve.

  22. Great topic of discussion Maryellen.Great topic of discussion Maryellen.

    I have allowed students to bring a 1xA4 page (double sided) crib sheet (or we did call them "cheat sheets" or notes page) to the final exam in a 300 student 2nd year physiology subject here in Australia for some years. This final exam (worth 40-50% of subject) was all case studies and students really appreciated having to condense and summarise their heavily factual physiology content and then use this page to help them construct integrated case study answers in the 3 hour paper (2 cases).

    The sheets were turned in with the exam and I did give a small mark out of 5 for the sheet (how it was used to answer the case, not what it looked like).

    The array of crib sheets over the year is amazing (in terms of amount of info per page, style, layout of information) and I have kept them in my office as a testiment to my students work. They have been the source of much reflection about the subject and my teaching of physiology.

    I agree with others that there is a huge amount of high order learning that goes into creating and then using the sheets appropriately. There was even a black market for sheets in following years (buy and sell). It was culture in itself!!!

    Give them a go, students love them and you can elevate the standard of answers expected.

  23. I teach math and I have a three-pronged test that I employ before I make students memorize a formula. 1. Is it silly not to memorize it because you are going to need it all the time? (like the quadratic formula for any intermediate algebra student or above) 2. Does memorizing it actually aid in your understanding of the material? (like the fundamental identities for a trigonometry student) 3. Should a college-educated person know this formula? (like the area formula for a rectangle)

    Unless the information hits at least one prong of the three, then students do not have to memorize it.

    I will allow "crib sheets" (note cards) in certain venues. When I have students make note cards I tell them if there are things that they are NOT allowed to have on the cards (I don't allow examples on the cards, but I generally allow all notes and formulas on them). I have students sign their cards and turn them in with their exam so that I will know that they are following the rules.__

  24. Great. Article, great comments.

    I think that any effort done regarding the subject I am teaching reienforces the results, I have never encouraged them to bring a special handmade cribsheet for the exam (they are unemployed workers, I don't force them to memorize), but seems an amazing idea.

    I teach telecommunications, very teachy, but this activity would also have impact over some other Key competences for lifelong learning, as communication in the mothear tongue, learning to learn and even cultural awareness and expression.

    Thank you!

  25. I personally find the idea of using cheat sheets (and I'll call them that, because I'm not terribly interested in trying to elevate its status to something legitimate) appalling. Is there anything else we can do to dumb down our students? Remember, these are the folks who may, one day, be taking care of you or a loved one. I agree wholeheartedly with the gurney journey above. Heaven forbid someone actually be made to remember something for more than a week. Just put the degrees in the vending machine and let the students buy one. Gonna need some machines that take $100 bills, and a lot of 'em.

  26. Good article and enjoyed the comments.

    I've done something similar but never called it a "crib sheet", just simply, "notes". The Learning Communities in the class will develop key points from the text. Then, they are shared with the entire class. Ultimately, students make their own "notes" to bring for the quiz. I had not thought about collecting the notes. Now that I've read the other comments, I will collect them in the future. Thanks!

  27. I have used the "crib sheet" idea for years in my high school science classroom. Students can make one sheet of paper (81/2 X 11) of handwritten notes and diagrams-front and back. However, I only allow them to use it for 5 minutes at the end of the test. I call it a "magic moment". It is supposed to help with the one or two answers that they just couldn't quite remember. I tell them that the "crib sheet" cannot replace actual studying and that there is no way that they can do the whole test from the crib sheet in only 5 minutes. I find that during the process of making the "crib sheet", they are indeed learning the material!!!

  28. I belive in some courses it can be helpfull. For me, math, crib sheets would totally be helpfull. Because remembering, at times, complex equations is extramly difficalt. Some other subjects such as history that require solid meorizing, crib sheets could be helpfull.

  29. I'm taking industrial science and having a crib sheet comes in handy, when comes to remembering equation or remember a step. Really like this method when taking an exam, helps out great.

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