Context: I am an assistant professor of mathematics at a small liberal-arts college in the US.

I am currently teaching an applied mathematics course for about thirty students with business-related majors, and I want to give them the opportunity to use a sheet of notes (a.k.a cheat sheet) on their first exam. I am concerned about the implementation of this policy; specifically, I want to ensure the following:

  1. This policy is as beneficial to student learning as possible.
  2. I close any loopholes that could lead to unfairness or some other unforeseen problem on test day.

Some things I have already anticipated:

  1. I will give the students some starter material that they should include on their note sheet—important formulas, critical concepts, examples they should definitely be prepared to see, etc.

  2. Rules regarding the size of the notes are precise: Students may have a single sheet of 8.5" × 11" paper (or smaller), and they may write on either side of it.

  3. The notes must be handwritten as this requires the students to process the material. (See this question for more discussion on why I believe that ultimately helps my students.)
  4. I will not give a student their exam until they have removed everything from their desk except their note sheet and calculator. (I do not want them searching in their bag/book/folders once they have begun the exam.)

That leaves me with the following questions:

  1. Should I require students to turn in their notes to me before the exam? After the exam? Is their anything to be gained by me reviewing their notes?
  2. Would it be better for me to simply give them a formula sheet that I’ve prepared? I know that this will help the students who are too lazy to bring a notes sheet, but I feel like that’s on them.
  3. Are there other problems I should be prepared to confront? I want to do everything possible to avoid difficulties on the day of the exam.
  4. Is there research that supports/discourages the allowance cheat sheets? Am I actually doing something that’s ultimately beneficial to my students?
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 3:22
  • 3
    You might specify if "either" means one side only or both; as it stands, it's ambiguous. Commented May 23, 2019 at 18:32

7 Answers 7


There is no way to cover every eventuality, but what helps is to have a clear paradigm as to what cheat sheets are supposed to achieve. Then view every decision you make regarding your exam in this respect. My paradigm (which may align with yours) is:

I do not want to gauge the students’ ability to blindly memorise stuff and recall it in a stress situation because it is not relevant to their lives and not what my course is about. The cheat sheet thus replaces the procedure of blindly memorising certain stuff. Moreover, what they write on a cheat sheet is a good emulation of what they have available through Internet searches, reference books, and similar in their non-exam future. (After all, they may just keep the cheat sheet.)

Applying this, I would add to your points and answer your questions and concerns raised in the comments:

  • Memorising is your benchmark for fairness. You cannot avoid slight unfairness to some students (see below for some examples), but as long as your process is more fair than relying on memory, you have won.

  • Communicate your paradigm to the students. This way, you avoid that students use the cheat sheet in misguided way that is detrimental to them. Moreover, by teaching them the spirit of the rule, you reduce the chance and strengthen your position in case of any rule disputes and allow the students to answer certain questions about the rules themselves (do not rely on any of this though).

  • Would it be better for me to simply give them a formula sheet that I’ve prepared?

    The most important part of memorising before a classical exam is structuring and reiterating the relevant knowledge as this strengthens the actual understanding of concepts (which is what your exam should be about). Making the cheat sheet handwritten replaces this.¹ Provided cheat sheets are not good for this. The same applies to machinally created cheat sheets, as they can simply be created by copying and pasting.

  • In a perfect world, restricting the cheat sheet in size would not be necessary – you cannot prevent students from blindly learning the entire textbook either.

    However, it does prevent students from wasting their time – before and during the exam – with an overly extensive cheat sheet. Moreover, it may increase the perceived fairness of the process. Finally, there will always be some idiot who manages to blindly copy the solution to every exam task ever given for the subject.

    On the other hand, make sure that whatever size limit you give suffices for the content the students should need, so you do not inadvertently reward those with a smaller handwriting, better eyesight, finer pen, etc. Giving them slightly more space than they need is not a problem; giving them much more space is.

  • You cannot avoid that some student just fills the cheat sheet with solutions to exercises or previous exam tasks. However, such a behaviour should not be rewarded: Make sure that the pool of possible tasks is sufficiently large. If you cannot do this (e.g., certain parts of theoretical physics have a notoriously low number of exam-suitable tasks), your exam may not be suited for handwritten cheat sheets – but then it is not suited for eliminating the advantages of memorising either.

  • Handwritten cheat sheets will pose problems to some handicapped students. (Just like memorising is bad for people who have issues with memorising or anxiety.) Ensure beforehand that every student can voice such problems so that a reasonable alternative can be found for them.

  • Should I require students to turn in their notes to me before the exam? After the exam? Is their anything to be gained by me reviewing their notes?

    This does not agree with the above paradigm: You cannot control what students memorised for the exam either. It may be helpful to verify and helpful to evaluate your approach to cheat sheeting by collecting the cheat sheets anonymously, but this deprives the students of re-using their cheat sheets².

¹ In fact, my own memorising process for exams (that required me to do this) was to write a cheat sheet for everything I had not memorised yet, check my memory with this cheat sheet a few times, write a new cheat sheet with the remainder of what I had not memorised, and so on.
² My cheat sheets¹ are probably the most useful written thing I kept from my own studies, but then I have not revisited them yet.

  • 1
    One could always specify that certain things, such as problem solutions (or even sketches thereof), are prohibited. Of course you then have to police that, and one day deal with denying a student a mostly-by-the-rules cheat sheet because of some violation. It's then a judgment call if that's worth the hassle (your own time and happiness are important, after all). Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 7:42
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    @zibadawatimmy: More importantly, you would again give advantage to those who just memorise problem solutions and similar. If sketches of problem solutions help with your exams, some students will memorise them. Depending on the subject, these may not even be a bad thing: After all the skill you (should) want to teach is applying the scheme. What you want to avoid is that they just paste a solution without understanding a thing about or being able to translate this to a different problem.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 7:53
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    About the 'handwritten' part, I'd like to point out that enforcing it may not be taken well. I sure dislike writing by hand, especially if it is something that I'm supposed to be able to read later. There's quite a few other arguments on both sides, I just wanted to point out that you should think about the option of letting the students type the cheatsheets on the computer if they wish so.
    – lucidbrot
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 12:58
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    @lucidbrot: I sure dislike writing by hand, especially if it is something that I'm supposed to be able to read later. – In that case forcing you to train it seems a good way to increase your happiness during a written exam as well as that of whoever has to correct it.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 13:03
  • @Wrzlprmft Arguably yes.I don't usually have a problem of reading my writing, but every now and then, something is unclear. But I don't think it's the task of an exam to teach handwriting. Also, a more important reason for me to write my notes digitally is that I can easily keep them and search through them for keywords. About half of the lectures I attend require handwritten cheat-sheets and I scan them all to pdf files to keep them for later use, but text recognition is not yet working perfectly
    – lucidbrot
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 13:08

I had one professor who would routinely give open-book, closed-note exams. He also said that we were allowed to (in fact, encouraged to) write whatever notes we wanted on the pages of the book.

His reasoning? He figured that most students would discard their notes at the end of the term, but some would at least keep their textbooks. And pertinent formulas and such would be scrawled inside the front and back covers.

I’ve not adopted this practice myself, but you mentioned the benefits of having students assemble their cheat sheets. This allows them to do so, but in a way that might be beneficial even beyond your class.

Of course, this means your questions will need to be suitable for an open-book test – but that’s another can of worms.

  • 7
    +1: Not a bad idea, though these days many students seem to "rent" the text book for the semester and give it back to the provider at the end. There are also more electronic books than before, so it's hard to know whether the student is accessing an electronic book or Google without sitting beside them all the time.
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 13:45
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    @PeterK - I'm afraid you're right. I hadn't thought about that. It seems like today's rentals and ebooks could well render this strategy obsolete.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 14:53

Regarding your first question:

Should I require students to turn in their notes to me before the exam? After the exam? Is their anything to be gained by me reviewing their notes?

Have the students turn in their note sheet with the written portion of their exam, then give it back to them after the exam is graded.

Keeping the notes with the exam sheet means there is little overhead, but it gives you the option to get a general idea of what students are writing down and may help give context when grading a particular student's exam.

Even if you choose not to review the notes, collecting them with the exam allows the students to eventually keep the notes without giving them the ability to write confidential exam information on their paper and possibly use it to help other students cheat.

  • 1
    There's another reason to have them turn them in. Some students will write down the questions from the exam on their note sheet. If they take it with them, you've given them a copy of the exam questions (or at least some of them). Maybe you're OK with that, maybe you're not. But you're potentially allowing it. Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 21:23

Why don't you include the students a bit more in the process, rather than just providing a dictum?

Start out by explaining the pedagogical virtues of having them prepare a note sheet. Avoid the word "cheat sheet", as it gives poor connotations. They are, in fact, not cheating.

Tell them that the written exam will be adapted to the length of the note sheet. If the length of the sheet allows them to copy the book verbatim, the exam will essentially be like an open book exam.

Ask, in class, for suggestions: How long would you like the note sheet to be? Write down all suggestions, and set up an online poll with a deadline. Pick the one with most votes by the deadline, no extensions or excuses.

Have the students prepare the sheet a week before the exam, and organize a Q/A session based on the sheets. Have the students prepare sheets, and perhaps bring your own suggestion to how you would make a sheet, but tell them that sheets organizing knowledge are per definition individual. Allow the students to compare sheets (in groups if there are many students) and discuss among themselves.

In this way you will have facilitated a process where the students feel ownership themselves, and they will hopefully also learn a lesson in organizing knowledge.

I have tried the above procedure with success.

  • 1
    I don't allow "cheat" sheets of any type - also with success and having tried using them, with all the issues mentioned above : miniscule writing, complete questions / answers etc etc... Oh, for the days where all that was needed was a pen, pencil and a set of Log tables - provided of course...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 8:56
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    What makes you think the students have any clue as to what constitutes good practices for cheat sheets? By that logic, we were all students at some point, so we should know. The students will just give you answers that minimize any effort required on their part and ensure they get the best grade possible.
    – user9646
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 9:40
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    @nabla Then I assume the best note sheet is one that contains all the answers to the exams, to be copied verbatim? Because that's the least amount of effort for the best grade. Yes, we're talking about education, and the goal isn't the grade, it's for the students to learn something. I've taken open-notes exams in the past and they were valuable. But they were also for advanced math classes, taken as a math student. OP is teaching math to business students. It's not the same approach IMO.
    – user9646
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 10:10
  • 5
    @nabla You seem to think the grade is the end-game of education, in which case you miss the point of education entirely. The cheat sheet does not exist to give you a better grade. Ideally, you get the same grade on an exam-with-cheat-sheet as you do on an exam-without. The point of the cheat sheet is to focus a student's studies on what the instructor deems to be the important stuff, so that they more sharply hone the knowledge and skills they will need most in the future. Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 10:14
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    Oh for the days that to do your job what was needed was also only a pen, pencil and a set of Log tables.... Actually no, scratch that, progress is good ;)
    – ntg
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 9:32

Your students are liberal arts students, they won't gain anything from memorizing the formulas, so I think what you're doing is not bad practice at all.

Even as an engineer, I rarely need these formulas in my life (last I needed a formula was about a year ago), and even when I do, there are sites such as Wolfram Alpha or Wikipedia that will give me a hand.

Anyway, as for your points:

Should I require students to turn in their notes to me before the exam? After the exam? Is their anything to be gained by me reviewing their notes?

For what reason? Do you want to increase your workload, just to see if they wrote down entire questions? Taking the papers is somewhat like homework with additional steps, I suggest leaving them with the students. Even if they just throw away their sheets right after the exam.

Would it be better for me to simply give them a formula sheet that I’ve prepared? I know that this will help the students who are too lazy to bring a notes sheet, but I feel like that’s on them.

Just prepare a bare-bones formula paper, and hand them out (or post them online) a week or two before the exam. If they can't even be bothered to write those down, there's no point in trying to force it down their throats.

Also, just giving them a pre-made formula sheet would be disadvantageous towards the people who can memorize the formulas but can't remember where or how to apply them. Letting them prepare a sheet is better, in my opinion, since they can just write down what they're bad at and come to the exam with that part.

Are there other problems I should be prepared to confront? I want to do everything possible to avoid difficulties on the day of the exam.

There can always be problems but in my personal experience, people are mostly content with the "you can bring one sheet to the exam" method, and there will always be problems that arise in the moment, no matter what method you use for the exam.

Is there research that supports/discourages the allowance cheat sheets? Am I actually doing something that’s ultimately beneficial to my students?

There are more than just a few that you can find by just searching for cheatsheet on exams research via your favorite search engine. Some examples are: here, here, here and here.


In addition to other answers, I would like to point some practical problems with individual hand-written cheat-sheets:

  • The rule that only hand-written cheat-sheets are allowed should be very clearly stated and enforced. In my experience, in every test some student show with photocopied or printed cheat sheets. Enforcing the rule means actually forcing them to take the exam without a cheat sheet and it usually amounts to failing them. If that's what you want, you must need to be prepared.
  • Some students will bring somebody else's cheat sheet. At best, they will have hand-copied it, at worst they will just have borrowed it from someone on another group or another year. That defeats the purpose of not allowing printed or photocopied cheat sheets.
  • On the other hand, if printed or copied cheat sheets are allowed, most students will carry the same model - hopefully a collaboratively made one, but more usually just copied.

At worst, in places where there are academies to prepare exams, students will carry a cheat sheet prepared by the academia teacher, be it printed or hand-copied.

In the end, I think reality defeats good intentions and there is very little advantage on trying to only allow hand made own cheat sheets instead a of providing an standard cheat sheets or allowing any cheat sheet (hand-written or printed) and limit only size.

In addition, for some topics hand written notes are problematic. I remember a statistics lab test where students could bring a cheat sheet with R code but most of them had little formatting errors that rendered the code unusable. Copy-pasting the code instead of copying it by hand would have prevented that problem.

In summary, when I want to allow cheat sheets, my favourite options are:

  • Giving them my cheat sheet. I print them to prevent customization, but I publish the cheat sheet in advance to allow students to familiarize with it.
  • Allowing full access to the course material or a large part of it. Nowadays, that's easy in computer based tests with computer based material.

In my courses I adopted the option of preparing the formula sheet and providing it. I provide it in advance so students will know what they will have available and need to know how to use, but with the exam I provide a clean copy. My field has a professional certification exam and a formula sheet is provided. I have found the process useful and without problems.

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