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I'm a student from Germany and currently preparing for some exams. I got an email from one of the professors that contains information about the cheat sheets you are allowed to write and use in the exams. These consist of four DIN A4 pages (so default writing paper) you can write your “Formelsammlung” (formulary, literally: “formula collection”) on. This is important, since the issue is, what does he mean by this?

Depending on the professor, this can mean anything from “Really only formulas, if you write a single word, it will be counted as an attempt to cheat” to “Do what you want with it, I couldn't care less”. Most professors go with a more liberal approach, but there are some who don’t want anything but formulas. What almost all exams have in common is that you are allowed to use one of those cheat sheets. Usually I would just ask the professor, but he explicitly stated in the mail that he refuses to elaborate on that:

Ich werde auf Nachfragen der Art „Was darf auf die Formelsammlung?“ nicht antworten. Eine Formelsammlung ist eine Formelsammlung.

(I will not answer questions in the style “What is allowed on the cheat sheet”. A formula collection is a formula collection.)

Which is the cause of my question: If the professor refuses to answer, what becomes fair game?

EDIT:

Due to numerous complaints the professor has just written another email. He clarified what he meant, which was: No examples of appliances of formulas with example numbers, and no labeled graphs. I assume no circuits either, but now I know that I can at least put somewhat descriptive labels on my formulas and put graphs without labeling.

Zahlenwertbeispiele, konkrete beschriftete Skizzen o.ä. sind NICHT erlaubt.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 23, 2023 at 18:42
  • 1
    I would suggest this question be edited to replace instances of "cheat sheet" with "formula collection" (or possibly "formula sheet"). It's clearer phrasing in multiple ways. Jan 24, 2023 at 1:18
  • 1
    In high school, a history teacher once told us we could make our own cheat sheets for the upcoming test; it could be a single, standard-sized index card with anything you could fit on it. One student transcribed the entire chapter on it by translating it to Japanese, which has a ridiculously compact script. The teacher never made an offer like that again. Jan 24, 2023 at 17:16
  • 2
    I have updated the question, the professor clarified himself, Thanks for your helpful answers and comments :)
    – monamona
    Feb 10, 2023 at 10:34

13 Answers 13

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I disagree with the other answer here by Buffy; write whatever you want and as much as you want. If your professor refuses to communicate allowable scope or restrictions then there are none. He cannot reasonably hold you to restrictions that exist only in his imagination. (Also, keep his email in case there is a dispute over this.)


Update: Additional information has been added to the question after my answer, showing the actual email lines the professor sent. In my view, his statement could be taken to imply that he is one of the professors who wants to you restrict your sheet to only formulas (i.e., no accompanying textual explanation) and so he has elaborated on what he means (contra the original question). This complicates the matter, but his refusal to clarify further still operates in your favour. Since many people already voted on the original question and answer I am posting this as an update rather than revising my original answer.

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  • 42
    Not all universities protect students from a professor’s imagination, and this piece of advice may be a recipe for a bad grade or for failure altogether, and little would do keeping the email in such a case. Jan 21, 2023 at 22:57
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    This answer makes the assumption that the school will apply contra proferentem to the professor's policies. While doing so would certainly be a good thing, is it something you can actually rely on? Jan 21, 2023 at 22:57
  • 12
    Also, contra the comments, keeping the email helps a great deal. If the professor wants to impose a penalty on the student then he would have to use the university's procedures for breaches of exam rules and would have to follow the due process of that procedure. Having an email from the professor where he allows a cheat sheet but explicitly refuses to clarify the allowable contents is virtually irrefutable evidence of the absence of any wrongdoing by the student. A professor who tried to impose a penalty on the student for breach of exam rules in such a case would come out of it badly.
    – Ben
    Jan 22, 2023 at 2:12
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    @emory due to the importance given to data protection in German public institutions, it will be close to impossible to get IT to release a copy of the professor's email. It is much better if the student keeps one. On the other hand, in my experience in Germany, "a four-page Formelsammlung" has always meant "four pages of absolutely anything as long as it is handwritten. Let the contest for the smallest handwriting begin!".
    – wimi
    Jan 22, 2023 at 16:48
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    IMO this is very bad advice. If the professor clearly states that it must be a "formula collection", the students should definitely not "write whatever you want and as much as you want".
    – Nick S
    Jan 22, 2023 at 21:53
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There is actually a book genre called Formelsammlung (typical example). Those works that I am aware of contain words and even whole sentences. You might want to keep the relative share of formulas and sentences in a range that you can justify with a printed Formelsammlung.

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    This answer does not get enough attention. All other answers seem to assume that "formula collection" is an ad-hoc description, but "Formelsammlung" does have a defined meaning in german (see de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formelsammlung), and I very much assume that the professor did mean that definition.
    – orithena
    Jan 23, 2023 at 13:45
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There isn't a "fair game" because it isn't a game at all. The best advice in such a case is to interpret the words strictly and conservatively. If you make more liberal assumptions and are wrong, you don't get points for trying. Is there a "ref" than can call fairs and fouls?

Perhaps, however, you can get some information from former students of this prof how they have behaved in the past.

What you need is a "safe game", not a "fair" one. And gaming an educational system isn't always winnable.

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  • 52
    FYI: The phrase "fair game" has nothing to do with gaming, or implying that education should be an adversarial game -- it comes from "game" in the sense of hunting, where wildlife protection regulations dictate what is and isn't "fair game." You seem to be reading a lot of strange intent into OP's words that isn't actually there. Jan 22, 2023 at 0:18
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    Etymology does not trump usage.
    – JonathanZ
    Jan 22, 2023 at 1:58
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    As for the ref, isn't that the role of the Dept Chair, Disciplinary Committee, Honor Council, or whatever body would (attempt to) punish the student for violating the exam rules?
    – Matt
    Jan 22, 2023 at 2:46
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    If you make more liberal assumptions and are wrong, you don't get points for trying. – I disagree: If you can store other information than pure formulas on the sheet and thus do not have to memorise it (or not have it at all), you have an advantage in the exam.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 22, 2023 at 10:26
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    @JonathanZsupportsMonicaC except here it's clearly interpreted in a totally different way than OP used it. What "fair game" usually means (and what OP intended here) was "what is acceptable to do in this context?". So specifically: "what would be acceptable to write on this sheet, within the boundaries of the very vague and ambiguous limits the professor gave me?"
    – Opifex
    Jan 23, 2023 at 11:52
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I will just say what I would do.

First, evaluate how much would you benefit from writing anything else but formulas. If the benefit is small I would not bother and follow Buffy's advice.

If the benefit is very big, I'd make two cheat sheets. One that is strict, and contains only formulas that I'd keep just in case and one that is useful for you. Then I would send an email to the professor, with the attached cheat sheet saying something along the lines

Dear Professor X.

Since I was not absolutely sure what you meant by "Formelsammlung" I am attaching my cheat sheet in here. If there are any problems please let me know before the test.

Thanks in advance,

monamona

Or whatever you feel comfortable with. That way the professor is at least more responsible to whether or not your cheat sheet follows the lines. (and you have already prepared a back-up if the Professor has problems with your current version).

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  • 2
    It's an advanced electrical engineering class. The biggest benefit comes from example diagrams for certain circuits, so both would be located on the sheets. This is not negligible in this case
    – monamona
    Jan 22, 2023 at 9:23
  • @monamona, I've still upvoted this answer because it's a good strategy regardless. Part of my exam revision process (including advanced electrical engineering courses!) used to involve writing anything I couldn't remember on 1 sheet of A4 which I'd then carry around with me to look at while I tried to memorise the things I couldn't remember. Doing this will help you memorise some of those circuits, so even if the cheat sheet is not allowed in the exam, you'll have had some benefit.
    – Pam
    Jan 23, 2023 at 13:53
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    Be aware that when following this, "no response" brings absolutely no guarantees and is likely to be the default choice for any professor. A professor isn't obligated to check student's exam material ahead of time. Worst case, the student will face extra scrutiny right before the exam. Jan 23, 2023 at 20:41
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    The benefit of creating the more comprehensive cheat sheet is that, even if it turns out it is disallowed (even if discovered 2 minutes before the test), is that the mere production of it will cement the material in the student's mind much more firmly...
    – ErikE
    Jan 24, 2023 at 0:09
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Speaking from my own experience as teacher at German universities: If the professor cannot be bothered, then they believe the cheat sheet will not make a huge difference anyways. Even more so because four pages is already quite a lot. The professor is simply not into testing your memorization skills. So simply follow their instructions by the letter and you will be fine. But also be aware that investing all your time and effort only into preparing the "best possible" cheat sheet is probably not the best way to allocate your ressources. I'll try to explain to you why.

I think that cheat sheets are particularly common in math courses. Mathematicians do not value memorization pretty high. What's more important to them is the understanding of the concepts and the skills to perform computations and logical deductions. (And with regard to computations it is often considered most valuable that the correct algorithms are used; small errors in the computations typically result in only moderate score reductions.)

A typical exercise in such an exam is to perform Gaussian elimination on a small system of linear equations. A cheat sheet would not help you much if you have not thoroughly practiced the algorithm before the exams. Even if you put all steps of the algorithm onto the sheet, you will simply lose too much time when you try to reproduce it for the very first time.

Another example is computing an integral by substitution or by integration by parts. You can put these rules on the cheat sheet. (It is indeed a good idea because it is easy to get them wrong when one is nervous.) But you would hardly be able to apply these techniques without having developed an intuition on where and how exactly to apply them.

Writing a cheat sheet is a good idea nonetheless because the process of writing

  1. helps with memorization;
  2. is a good warmup (you can refresh your knowledge and load it into a region of your memory that can be quickly accessed by your "central processing unit");
  3. gives you an overview of all the material, and it might tell you which topics might be worth more practicing.

Note that for all this to happen, it is crucial that you write you cheat sheet yourself. And it might be a good idea to do it in handwriting, not with the computer.

Also, having the cheat sheet with you during the exams is a good psycholgical trick and might help to lower your level of nervousness.

And remember: The best cheat sheet is the one onto which you don't have to look during the exams!

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  • It's an advanced electrical engineering class, so mostly applied mathematics. Usually some diagrams come in handy, as well as rules for creating said diagrams. I'm well aware of what would come in handy, and I always learn as if I weren't allowed a cheat sheet at all, with that strategy I've had a lot of success over the years
    – monamona
    Jan 22, 2023 at 9:21
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    Then you should really not worry that much about this formality. Good luck with your exams! Jan 22, 2023 at 9:38
  • "And it might be a good idea to do it in handwriting, not with the computer." Some of the most elaborate, thorough cheat sheets that I ever made (and that I knew entirely by heart at exam time) were on a computer (I had to grudgingly copy them by hand before the exam using time that would have been better spent elsewhere). This advice is strongly subjective.
    – Nobody
    Jan 22, 2023 at 15:02
  • @CodyGray Thank you for the remark. I corrected it. Jan 22, 2023 at 17:28
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I personally would do 1 of each kind. If you are allowed to use and are told "that one is not allowed" you have the other as backup. I have had to do this for a few of my classes.

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    I'd be careful with that. In my time as a TA, we'd do things like ID and material checks during the exam so people could get started as quickly as feasible. But once you've turned over the question sheet, you've started and it's potentially too late to say "oh I won't use this one then". Jan 22, 2023 at 13:18
  • So who should when tell you? Wouldn't that imply that you need to ask someone before the exam?
    – user111388
    Feb 11, 2023 at 15:22
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First of all, exam conditions should be properly specified, as it is unfair to make the exam a guessing game as to what you can do and what not. Most examination rules, boards, etc. recognise this. I would consider organising to contact the professor centrally, e.g., via the student union to urge him to specify what he means. This does not only help you but also future generations of students. (You could also just show him this Q&A to demonstrate that things are not as clear as he thinks they are.)

However, going by your quote, I wouldn’t assume malice or laziness on the side of the professor, but rather a common misunderstanding of how language works:

he explicitly stated in the mail that he refuses to elaborate on that:

Ich werde auf Nachfragen der Art „Was darf auf die Formelsammlung?“ nicht antworten. Eine Formelsammlung ist eine Formelsammlung.

(I will not answer questions in the style “What is allowed on the cheat sheet”. A formula collection is a formula collection.)

This second sentence strongly implies that your professor thinks that “Formelsammlung” is a clear specification. His preemptive rejection of questions on this suggests your professor has given out a similar ruling before, received questions and was annoyed by this – since he thinks his statement is clear. (Note that being generally annoyed by student questions on exam details is an occupational hazard for professors. The amount and kind of questions students can ask even on clearly stipulated exam rules can be staggering.)

Of course the problem is that “Formelsammlung” (formula collection) is not sufficiently clear but can, e.g., be interpreted:

  1. literally, such that it is only a collection of formulas (including explanations what the respective symbols mean);
  2. following the style of a particular “Formelsammlung” your professor has in mind;
  3. broadly, including everything that can be deemed worth memorising, e.g., algorithms, circuit diagrams, descriptions of devices and experiments.

Somebody who writes “Eine Formelsammlung ist eine Formelsammlung.” is almost certainly the kind of person who interprets language overly literally (and assumes everybody else should too) and thus means Interpretation 1. So if I had to put all my stakes one interpretation, this would be it. There is a slight chance of Interpretation 2, in particular if there is one very established standard formulary for your field.

This is further evidenced by the amount of pages you can use, which is very high: For every exam I ever took, I could fill the relevant information on a single sheet (without writing particularly small). Four pages suggests that your professor think a space restriction is not necessary, since he has a content restriction in place. If I allowed for four pages in an exam (without content restriction), I might as well have an open-book exam, as some student will manage to write every solution to every exercise ever made on that sheet.

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Wikipedia has this on the "Formelsammlung" page:

Eine Formelsammlung ist ein Nachschlagewerk, das fachgebietsbezogen meist naturwissenschaftliche oder mathematische Formeln enthält.1 Es werden in Formelsammlungen in der Regel keine näheren Erklärungen bzw. Beweise dargestellt. In Form eines Buchs oder einer Broschüre dient die Formelsammlung unter anderem als (zugelassenes) Hilfsmittel in Prüfungen oder als Lernmittel im Unterricht.

Translated by my favourite AI automated statistics-based translator this means:

A collection of formulas is a reference work that usually contains scientific or mathematical formulas related to a specific subject. As a rule, no detailed explanations or proofs are presented in collections of formulas. In the form of a book or a brochure, the formulary serves, among other things, as an (approved) aid in examinations or as a learning tool in class.

This seems pretty straight-forward to me, and matches my experience in the past. In school (Bavaria) we had a little blue Formelsammlung IIRC, and it was exactly as in the quote. Lots of formulas, no explanations. Of course there were words and sentences to structure the formulas where it made sense, or to explain something about the syntax.

I cannot remember to be allowed to use a Formelsammlung at Uni, but I would go with that. Cram your 4 pages full with formulas; use titles or little intro words as necessary, and you should be quite fine.

Check out this Formelsammlungen Sekundarstufe I - Bayern - Realschule: Mathematik - Physik - Chemie - Formelsammlung - LehrplanPLUS and use the "Blick ins Buch" feature to read some of the pages. If your prof gives you trouble for your four pages, and if worst comes to worst, you can show him a book like this. There are plenty of words, sentences, explanations etc.

And to elaborate on what you should not write:

  • No proofs.
  • No elaborate explanations (like a whole paragraph with free text on how to use the formulas, or with the "algorithm" how to solve problem X in general).

Here are more examples:

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  • I had no problem reading your answer until the last line: "use titles or little intro words as necessary". Would you please explain it? For example, if I write Maxwell equations on that cheat sheet, can I put "Maxwell equation" literally in front of the equations?
    – Nobody
    Jan 23, 2023 at 12:08
  • I guess the formula A=4 pi r^2 isn't too useful on its own. Write "Surface area of a sphere" above it and it becomes more useful. Jan 23, 2023 at 12:11
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    Yes, @Nobody, exactly that. I'll add an example from a "Formelsammlung" book to the answer.
    – AnoE
    Jan 23, 2023 at 13:16
  • @DavidA.Craven: When talking about an exam, I disagree: Most likely, the user would know that "surface area of a sphere" is something with A and pi and would immediately recognize it.:)
    – user111388
    Feb 10, 2023 at 22:43
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The fact that the professor itself doesn't want to answer and spent his time explaining what he thinks belongs on the sheet doesn't mean that TA's won't give you answer when you ask them.

Especially if you already have a set of sheets prepared you can easily ask your TA whether or not it is allowed when you meet them.

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    In my experience the TAs are often the ones supervising the exams (or at least present if they are not the sole supervisors). They can be expected to know what is allowed and isn't allowed as exam aid and are also generally more approachable than professors. This is the "safest" option. If the TAs don't know or don't respond (or don't exist) then the options in the other answers could be tried out.
    – Lomtrur
    Jan 23, 2023 at 8:45
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What you describe is kind of a limited "open book exam". You're allowed to look up things, because you're expected to solve transfer problems. Let's say you can write down the value of pi to the needed number of digits, as the professor expects you to solve problems involving pi and not remembering many digits of such a constant.

Limiting it to one page has some advantages, as students need to think about what's important and write it down. This selection and noting is already a repetition. In addition, a full "open book exam" may lead to people bringing tons of books (Scripts, formularies, etc.), so it is reasonable to give a limit.

One (possibly two-sided) Din A4 page is, what should be reasonable for the things needed for a fair exam. If you need more, you probably didn't know how to select the really relevant things.

In that spirit, I would say you can write down anything. I think the refusal to answer questions in the e-mail has the purpose that students cannot ask "Will I need section 2.37 of the script on my cheat sheet?"

The problem is, when you really fear that "write a single word" is cheating, you will need clarification. Maybe you can find someone who took the exam last year and can tell you about their cheat sheet? Maybe they can even provide you their sheet and some hints what the exam was about.

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I am working at a German university, and from my point of view, he has answered the question quite clearly. "Eine Formelsammlung ist eine Formelsammlung" is a clear statement that he only accepts formulas on the sheet. Nothing else. End of discussion.

That he does not want to answer any further questions on this topic only means that he does not want any further discussions about this.

If you don't want to get into trouble, you should follow the rules and stick to formulas.

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  • while I'd not try and rules lawyer this, it's a sort of amusing idea that you might be able to write a paragraph by, say w +r + i + t + i + n + g=w + o + r + d + s - is there somewhere that sets allowable lists of formula? or is there a basic reasonableness test, like "this should be something that someone in your field would recognise as a formula?
    – lupe
    Jan 23, 2023 at 16:51
  • I read it exactly the same. And he probably gets way too many queries from students that want more than the standard formulas. Jan 26, 2023 at 20:12
  • @lupe: For such clear cases, a German professor could simply say "that's cheating" and the student would not be.able.to complain.
    – user111388
    Feb 11, 2023 at 15:19
  • @sisee: There are many different answers and comments. I think this establishes that the answer was clear.
    – user111388
    Feb 11, 2023 at 15:20
-1

Your school will have an academic integrity office whose purpose is to investigate academic misconduct (so cheating, plagiarism etc.).

If your professor won't lay out what the restrictions on the cheat-sheet are, refer the matter to the academic integrity office and they'll be more than happy to find out for you.

The last thing they want is a professor arguing a student has cheated when the student reasonably believed that what they were doing was allowed just because the prof was too lazy to answer questions.

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    I doubt that this answer is applicable to many public universities in Germany. In fact. I wouldn't even know a German word for "academic integrity office". There is a committee which is often called "Prüfungsausschuss" (but I'm not sure whether every university uses precisely this word), which can roughly be translated as "exam committee", but it seems hardly comparable to an "academic integrity office" (assuming my interpretation of the term "academic integrity office" is correct). Jan 22, 2023 at 13:47
  • Fair enough, I guess I'm missing the cultural context, just assumed that this would be the same in every country to be honest. Whether it's a literal office or not isn't really important, I more meant that there should be someone who is in-charge of dealing with academic offenses no? Jan 22, 2023 at 17:13
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    [...] this might apply to an "academic integrity office" if there are people in this office who consider this one of their major tasks. For a "Prüfungsausschuss" at a German university I wouldn't bet that they'd, in the situation described by the OP, be happy to find out for the OP. And even if they were, there's not much they could do to influence the professor's decision except for having a nice chat. I think the main point regarding the cultural context here is that German professors enjoy an extremely high level of independence. (But by the way, I wasn't the one who downvoted.) Jan 22, 2023 at 18:37
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    Hmm, I think there might be another misunderstanding, as I probably phrased things a bit to sloppily: it's not the exam committee's task to charge students with cheating - for most cases of cheating at German universities, there won't be "charges" (in the sense of something that needs to be verified and requires a decision) at all. All that happens in many cases is that the person responsible for the exam (in most cases the professor or some of their assistants) who finds a student cheating, will document this and will report a "failing grade due to cheating" to the administration. [...] Jan 22, 2023 at 19:51
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    [...] The exam committee only gets involved if either the student complains, or if more serious actions are considered, for instance if the student has already cheated multiple times. That's another reason why I'd be reluctant to compare such an "exam committee" to an "academic integrity office" - the exam committee does not automatically get involved (in the sense that they need to make a decision) in cases of cheating. Jan 22, 2023 at 19:51
-1

Couple of things.

Firstly, referring to the materials or notes allowable in a formal examination as a "cheat sheet" seems like it reveals something about the mentality here.

Secondly, your professor may be sufficiently familiar with you to know that you're attempting to probe the outer limits of the wording and defeat the constraint, rather than align your own understanding of a "formulary" with his.

There is a school of thought which is not that you will be held to the letter of the law, and the obligation is on those laying down the law to be unambiguously precise about the form of every possible violation.

Instead, the law is laid down merely to note that there is the existence of a policy, and it's incumbent upon you to familiarise yourself with the purposes of the policy (such as, to relieve the students of the need to memorise a large number of formulas), the conventional shared practices around it (such as what others are putting on their sheets), and use your good judgment to cooperate with the policy.

You may be asked to account for yourself later, and you may be judged and penalised if someone else thinks your judgement was not normal or correct.

The exact information that ends up on the cheat sheet is probably not important. What is important is that a group of students conform to a shared norm about it.

Depending on your appetite for the risk, you can either be conservative and write down only formulas, or you can take your chances on what you write and risk being declared a cheat.

What you probably want to do, but cannot, is simply write down whatever you want but risk no consequences.

The reality is that all the time spent considering the margin of what might or might not be acceptable on the formulary, would probably have been better spent studying and memorising whatever questionable information you had wanted to include in the formulary.

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    "referring to the materials or notes allowable in a formal examination as a "cheat sheet" seems like it reveals something about the mentality here." Huh? About whose mentality? In exams in STEM fields in Germany it is pretty common that the "allowable materials" are simply a sheet of paper where you can write down formulas, etc. It is quite common in Germany (also for faculty members) to refer to those as "cheat sheets" (which is meant tongue-in-cheek, of course). No mentality issues here, except maybe that one doesn't take every single word deadly seriously. Jan 22, 2023 at 12:22
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    Agree with Jochen. The German word I am familiar with is Spickzettel (notably, no direct reference to cheating in the word itself) and this is the word professors in my time typically used when colloquially talking about these sheets of paper.
    – Jan
    Jan 22, 2023 at 12:28
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    @Nobody: Yes, sure. My comment was not supposed to answer the question of the OP - it was merely a response to Steve's claim that the word "cheat sheet" would indicate somekind of mentality issue. What precisely is allowed on the sheet is of course relevant for the OP, but not for the rather common description of the sheet as "cheat sheet". I think the main reason why it's often referred to as a "cheat sheet" (and also the point which distinghuishes it from other kinds of materials that one could allow the students to use) is the size restriction. Jan 22, 2023 at 13:08
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    @Steve: Thanks for your response. Maybe we are talking past each other. It happens quite frequently that academic staff at German universities refers to those sheets by the German word "Spickzettel" (whose translation to English seems to be "cheat sheet"). I'm a faculty member myself and sometimes use the word with this meaning when talking to students, and I've seen several of my colleagues (at several different universities) do it as well. I don't see any poor judgement if somebody refers to a concept by a word that is commonly used for this specific concept. Jan 22, 2023 at 13:28
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    (One might argue, though, that this is a translation issue - indeed, for this very reason I would have avoided this particular word if I had posted the question. But again, a misunderstanding based on language does not imply anthing about OP's mentality) Jan 22, 2023 at 13:31

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