I am the course leader for an undergraduate course. We have two quizzes each semester: one around the middle of the semester, and one at the end.

For the first quiz, students were allowed to bring a one-page "cheat sheet" which could be either handwritten or printed.

Our original intention for the "cheat sheet" was to encourage students to process the course material and to summarize it for their own learning. Unfortunately, I noticed that some of the students had instead merely printed the lecture slides in really small font. Instead of actively working through the material, trying to understand it, select what was important, and write it down, these students took the easy way out by copy-and-pasting everything onto their "cheat sheet".

As I began planning for the second quiz, I decided that students would gain more from the process of preparing their "cheat sheets" if they were forced to handwrite their "cheat sheet". There seems to be some research that backs this up, for example, this article says:

In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning.

"When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can," Mueller tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."

Today, 10 days before the date of the quiz, I made an announcement in class that for the second quiz, only handwritten "cheat sheets" are allowed. One of the students was extremely upset about this policy change. He felt that:

  1. Making such a change 10 days before the quiz/exam is unfair and unprofessional
  2. He had already spent hours preparing his digital "cheat sheet", so changing the policy penalizes students like him who prepared for their quizzes early.

The student was so annoyed that he sent an e-mail to the department general office to complain about this policy change. I was quite surprised that the student feels so upset, and I feel that the student is making a mountain out of a molehill. However, this is my perspective as a course leader, so I wanted to ask for an impartial and unbiased opinion.


  1. Am I being unreasonable/unprofessional by changing the requirements for the quiz "cheat sheet" 10 days in advance?
  2. Is the student overreacting?
  3. Or are both of us in the wrong?

Response to comments

To be brutally honest, if an "open book" exam is made substantively easier by having reference to all the course/lecture material simply presented verbatim, then it's not a very good open book exam...

On the other hand, if the challenge posed by your exam wasn't really affected just because students brought in all the lecture materials, then what's the issue?

You raise a very good point that I hadn't considered earlier. Personally, I don't think that bringing in all the lecture materials would help a student significantly, because our quizzes do test understanding and analysis rather than rote memorization.

The reason why I would still nevertheless prefer to require a handwritten cheat sheet is because I feel that a significant proportion of students are lazy, and without being prodded (by having to handwrite a "cheat sheet"), they would just copy the lecture slides wholesale and hope for the best.

If the exam was in the middle of the semester, why didn't you bring up the change earlier?

This is a fair question.

The reason why I didn't think about this earlier is because I was busy with research, and I only work on what I need to do for the course in the next 1-2 weeks. This incident has shown me that there are teaching-related problems that I could avoid in the future if I were to plan ahead work with a longer time horizon. However, because I am an assistant professor who is not yet tenured, to be brutally honest, teaching is not my highest priority.

Although it would be ideal to announce the "cheat sheet" policy 6 weeks in advance, I feel that announcing the policy 10 days in advance gives the students enough time to prepare. I do feel that if I only gave the students 1-2 days of notice, that would be unfair because I am giving them very short notice.

What I decided to do in the end

I posted what I decided to do in the end, and what I learned from the community, in my answer below.

Editor's note: additional information provided in a comment:

There are about 600 students in the course. It just so happens that I am the "academic advisor" to 6 students, 4 of whom are taking the course. We have a WhatsApp group, where we can communicate casually about school-related stuff. (WhatsApp is an instant messaging app.) I've found that the fastest way to get feedback from students is not using e-mail but using WhatsApp. So I'm taking Solar Mike's advice to ask a select few students how they feel about this handwritten-only policy, to get an idea of what the broader student population thinks.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 18:27
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    Quick comment about the "10 days is a long time" part. You're falling into the classical "my course in a vacuum" trap. 10 days is a long time if your students have nothing else to do; however, this is most likely not the case. They might have projects to finish, other exams, or who knows what, and prepared for your exam two weeks earlier.
    – Nico
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 9:22

23 Answers 23


As requested by the asker, I am making this an answer. I have collated and summarised my points in the comments and added an opinion that I feel more constructively answers the question posed.

First of all, I feel that if an "open book" exam is made substantively easier by having reference to all the course/lecture material simply presented verbatim, then it's not a very good open book exam. The point of allowing references into an open book exam is to de-emphasise the role of rote memorisation. But the counter-balance should be to emphasise the role of deep analysis and application. If the exam is made too easy because the students have access to the full set of lecture slides, one probably hasn't set an exam that's analytical enough.

If an exam is really testing "understanding and analysis" then its marking scheme will be penalising regurgitators. In fact, they'll be doubly penalised because if they've just copy-pasted the lecture materials without adequately digesting them, they'll be wasting time reading them all over again during the exam instead of thinking up a good answer. So, with a robustly set and marked exam, one shouldn't have concerns about students with "wholesale" cheat sheets getting away with anything.

I am not arguing that references should have no value at all (then what would be their point?). I'm merely advising that an open book exam has to be set differently (and often much more thoughtfully) than a closed book exam.

With that preamble out of the way, let's address the actual question posed. I agree with those who've said that springing this change in expectations this close to the exam is likely to be unfairly penalising those students who've started work earlier on their reference materials. This group of students would likely be the more industrious, conscientious and organised group. Even though only one student vocally protested, it is likely there are others who are adversely affected whom the asker is not aware of.

The asker wants the students to put more thought and work into digesting their material before preparing their reference sheets. Ironically, by demanding a format change (handwritten sheet) so close to the exam, the penalty is likely to be unduly placed on the shoulders of exactly those who've fulfilled the spirit of the examiner's expectation, by starting work early and painstakingly digesting and summarising the material. I think it's unlikely that the "lazy" students who've just copy-pasted the material wholesale would be too perturbed since they haven't really invested very much time and effort into the process. Neither would the "last-minute chaps" who wouldn't have been caught out by the late announcement. This sudden change in expectation is likely to affect those whose study behaviour the examiner is more likely to think of as exemplary, and that's the sad part.

How to address the situation? Apart from reviewing the format/difficulty of the exam (to make wholesale cheat sheets not only useless, but a time-wasting disadvantage, as I mentioned), one way would be to review what exactly the complainant has incorporated in his cheat sheet. If the student has just copy-pasted wholesale, then you can feel less bad about the whole thing as he's likely to "just a whinger". On the other hand, if he's actually taken pains and effort to collate, reorganise and summarise your material into his cheat sheet, then you seriously have to reconsider your demands as you could be affecting more than this one student.

On balance, I would say that you should let this requirement slide this time. If your expectations are going to be highly prescriptive, you should make them clear much earlier next time (then no one really has a serious basis for complaint).

There are still things you can do. You can ask for the (identified) cheat sheets to be handed in with the exam; this allows you to gauge exactly which route students are taking with preparing their cheat sheets (printed vs handwritten, wholesale vs summarised). Make it clear that this time the students won't be judged by their cheat sheets, it's merely for your own analysis to set future policy. To keep yourself honest, mark their exams first, finalise those marks and then do the cheat sheet review. That way, you'll have an unbiased opinion and any correlation you draw between how a particular student has done vs the quality of their cheat sheet will be more meaningful.

For future exams, announce your expectations early (months in advance would be best). You can even go so far as to require students to submit their finalised individual cheat sheets a week or so before the exam. This will ensure they've all worked early enough and also permit you to check that they've met your demands with regard to format and content. Inform that they will be allowed no other materials during the exam but for their pre-made cheat sheets, which will be distributed by the proctor prior to the start of the exam.

There are complications with my suggestion in the last paragraph - what if a subset of students have prepared sub-par cheat sheets? Should you let that count against them in the final grading? Should you let them revise their cheat sheets and do a final review (and is there enough time all around for this)? Remember that my suggestion is meant to accommodate your seeming desire to be highly prescriptive about what to allow in your cheat sheets, so this is one way to control their quality. It's up to you to navigate any potential complications.

But personally, I would just say allow any non-electronic reference into the examination, and make sure it's set in such a way that it still remains meaningful as a test of understanding.

  • 1
    Underwood Typewriters making a comeback?? Academia strikes again!
    – Y12K
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 8:59
  • 3
    @Y12K I don't get it.
    – Deepak
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 9:33

I am that kind of student, so here's my perspective:

For one, I expect the rules to be clear when I sign up for a course. If you decide to change the rules after the start of the semester, it is not allowed to do so at the university I am attending unless you make sure that the change is better for the students. But even if a lecturer decides to add something like "You can hand in your exercises for bonus points" or "There will be a midterm for bonus points", it gets me on the wrong side - mostly because those "bonus" points are just as important as the non-bonus points and thus no different.

Similarly, you think that you are helping the students by forcing them to learn the material, but no matter how you try to force them, it just will not be helpful for every and all students in your class. For people like me, a huge amount of the motivation comes from the freedom of how to study: If I feel like a computer-written cheat-sheet helps me more, but I am forced to use a hand-written one, I will definitely come to you to complain.


  • I like to do everything on the laptop, having every note always available, and if I have to do something by hand, I tend to scan it later. So handwritten just means more effort for me.

  • I will never have such a good layout on my handwritten notes as on my digital notes. One reason being that I can change the content easily when I decide to move, remove, or reformulate something

  • Typing is faster. If I already understand what I'm writing this is preferable. If I don't, I'd rather spend time on understanding first, and then write the notes - not thinking while writing and doing both only half as good.

What I would recommend you is to explain why you recommend handwritten notes, but still allow the students to decide. If you feel like it, you could state that their cheat-sheets need to be self-written - but neither this nor the handwriting is something that can easily be actually enforced. You won't be looking at every student's notes to check if they have one page too much, or if they plagiarized your slides and wikipedia for it, right? So why not just allow them to do it how they prefer - it's them who fail if they did it the wrong way. And they won't remember everything they have written by themselves either when they need to apply the knowledge in 3 years or so, so knowing where to look those informations up is also important.

To answer your questions:

Am I being unreasonable/unprofessional by changing the requirements for the quiz "cheat sheet" 10 days in advance?

I would say yes. Especially if the students have other midterms around the same time, preparing won't be done in just one week.

Is the student overreacting?

Possibly. Just by what you're saying, I would say not. But then again, I myself tend to overreact in such scenarios as well :)

Or are both of us in the wrong?

This student probably only considers his viewpoint, just like I only stated mine. Meanwhile, you only consider the students who need enforcements like self-written notes and who will never start with their cheat-sheets until a week before the midterm. I guess both are in the wrong, but it's probably a question of principle:

Do you want to put the self-disciplined students at a disadvantage because you want as many students as you manage to actually pass, or do you hand the responsibility for studying to the students?

  • 8
    We had to submit not just the exam but also the cheat-sheet... = enforcing self-made cheatsheet; I went so far I emailed LaTeX sources as well.
    – Kyslik
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 22:53
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    Typing is faster. And exactly for that reason handwritten notes are better for learning scientificamerican.com/article/… Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 15:05
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    @VladimirF for learning. But I prefer to learn without writing anything at the same time, completely focusing on the process. Then maybe explain it to somebody else. Once I have learnt it and write the notes, I prefer to be fast and have a clean layout
    – lucidbrot
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 15:06
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    Re your second bullet point: seriously? Have you ever tried to lay out a page during a scientific class (maths, algorithms, whatever) including text, formulas and plots all together, using a laptop? Pen and paper work significantly better. Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 19:17
  • 9
    It should be obvious that students working all through the semester on their "cheat sheet" and have to redo the work are disadvantaged to those who spent their time differently and started their "cheat sheet" the week before the exam. Seems very unfair.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 21:26

Students preparing for finals are under a lot of stress. One way of coping with that stress is planning and visualization. A student may be boosting their confidence by thinking they have a really good cheat sheet already prepared for your test, and then you change the rules.

The notice seems unnecessarily short. Since the changed rule was a reaction to the mid-term, why not announce it immediately after the mid-term?

Handwriting-only is also an inherently unfortunate requirement for some students. I find it much easier to quickly locate information in a typeset printout than in anything handwritten. The more thought a student puts into organizing their cheat-sheet, the more they will lose by having to copy it out.

  • 13
    Ten days isn't enough time to recopy a cheat sheet into their own handwriting??? Ridiculous. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 22:05
  • 29
    @NicoleHamilton of course it’s long enough - the point is they’ve already spent hours that they could have devoted to something else, and they’ve got other work to be going. For example, I had a coursework set on a Tuesday and I finished it that Friday, despite a 3 week deadline. If the module convener had emailed us saying that he’s changed the task, I’d be annoyed- and for good reason. Nobody should have their time wasted like that.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 22:34
  • 6
    @NicoleHamilton The point of requiring handwriting is that it forces changes in organization. If it didn't, the OP's decision would be simply a useless waste of the students' time. Reworking a typeset document into a clear, quickly referenced, handwritten document involves more than just copying. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 23:56
  • 4
    @NicoleHamilton For me, the only difference between closed book and open book was whether I spent several hours over the last days before an exam memorizing the cheat sheet. Are you sure that sort of memorization exercise is the best possible use of your students' limited time? Given a choice, I would have spent the time rereading and thinking about the most difficult sections of the text book. Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 0:58
  • 5
    Are you speaking as a student or an instructor? As an instructor, in my view, an exam that tests whether you've memorized the material is usually a poorly-constructed test. You'll forget that stuff you've simply memorized pretty quickly anyway. It should test your ability to understand, analyze and think about the subject material, which you'll have a better chance of retaining and using. Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 4:09

I am grateful for the input from the community. In the end, I decided that it was not fair to the students to change the “cheat sheet” policy with only a one-week notice.

Here is a summary of what I learned from the answers and comments written by the community.

  • Timing is important
    If I had wanted to change the rules of the exam, I should have done so as early as possible. In this case, the most appropriate time would have been immediately following the first quiz.
  • Is this battle worth fighting?
    Although I think that requiring handwritten “cheat sheets” only would be beneficial to most students, it is not a “must do” change right now, one-week before the quiz. Therefore, although I could use my "dictatorial" powers as a course leader to arbitrarily change the rules, I would face opposition from some students, and it is not wise to fight this battle. The right time to make this change is the next time that I teach the course.
  • Should I create additional stress in students’ lives?
    Many students feel stressed around the end of the semester, when they are finishing assignments/projects and preparing for finals. Initially, I had thought that the handwritten only “cheat sheet” rule was a minor change, because I thought that it would take only one hour to copy your notes from a digital “cheat sheet” to a handwritten one. However, it was pointed out to me that to change the rules of the exam on short notice would create additional stress and frustration at an already difficult time.
  • Is it fair to penalize students who work early?
    To change the rules 1-2 weeks before the exam would penalize the hard-working students who prepared early, while the student who work at the last minute would not be affected. Many of the students who prepared early will (rightfully) perceive this as being unfair towards them. They would feel as if the teacher were destroying the product of their hours of work.
  • 8
    "I thought that it would take only one hour to copy your notes from a digital “cheat sheet” to a handwritten one." clearly, you have never done that! I've spent around 15 hours copying 20 pages of notes onto a one sided din a4 paper once, because a handwritten cheat sheet was allowed and a lot of plain knowledge was required. Even if it's not that much, writing - in readable handwriting - small enough to fit the same stuff a computer could, requires time. Hours of time. And maybe a second try because you misjudged the space you had available.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 12:43
  • I've been amazed at what I've seen students fit onto a single sheet of paper. Whether you ultimately choose to allow e-sheets or force handwriting, be prepared for some of the more ambitious students to put virtually everything you say in class on a cheat sheet. If you don't like that notion, one alternative I've seen and used is to provide your own sheet. The primary motivation for allowing cheat sheets is making it so students don't need to memorize formulas and such. Just furnish it for them; that way, they don't have to memorize, and everyone is on an equal footing come exam time.
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 16:25
  • 1
    @DonQuiKong the answer talks about a cheatsheet, not a 20 pages essay. One page is sufficient to write formulas and it takes less than an hour to copy in handwritten form. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 10:11
  • @AndreaLazzarotto my 20 pages did fit on a one-sided din a4 paper. Thats what I said in my comment. If you don't believe that you can write 20 hrs onto a single side, by all means, try it out.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:20
  • 1
    @DonQuiKong I believe you can and I believe you did. That's a nice job but by all means a 20 pages text is not a cheatsheet. A cheatsheet is a page or two containing the most fundamental formulas needed for an exam. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 12:58

I'd be inclined to think that cheat sheets are a privilege, not a right, so anything relating to these should be at the discretion of the instructor. Having said that:

However, because I am an assistant professor who is not yet tenured, to be brutally honest, teaching is not my highest priority.

If teaching isn't your highest priority, and your exams are challenging enough such that lecture notes being put onto cheat sheets isn't a problem, then I'd say you goofed -- you have found yourself in a bizarro world where you have other more important obligations but decided to rock the boat with a cheat sheet policy change. And now, paradoxically, you are having to devote even more time to something that is not a high priority ...

Here is Lesson #1001 that I've learned since starting a tenure-track position: Gotta think things through a bit more before acting on them, even if the thing isn't a high priority (!).

Going forward, just set cheat sheet policies and the like in stone at the beginning of the course, and don't take action on something unless it really matters.

  • 3
    +1 I like this answer, but I'd allow the instructor to make a change partway through the course if it's well thought out and if it's not 10 days before the end of the semester. For example, right after the midterm would be reasonable. Also, I'd advise OP to find a teaching mentor or two and run his ideas past these colleagues. However, note to OP: I'm glad you're thinking creatively about what would help your students be more successful. That augurs well for your future in teaching! // If you want to change the cheatsheet requirements next semester, I suggest a word limit, but allow typing. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:15

I don't think you are in the wrong, but requiring handwriting will create additional problems for students with certain learning challenges. Difficulty with handwriting can come from an injury, from a developmental issue that affects fine motor control, and from ADD.

I understand the desire to not have the open-notes reference sheets consist merely of small-font copied slides. I also understand the benefit when students sort through and redact all the content you've presented, including the in-class verbal presentation, and develop their own condensation of salient information.

One practice allows digitally prepared notes but insists that they not be simply copies of slides, textbook, or handouts. The professor spot checks the sheets before the exam and complements students for well-organized preparation.

In the larger view, this class comes around every year. Only the students change. Your mission is not only to educate this group but also to constantly improve the course and pedagogy to help the next group learn better. Next year, you could put your new requirement for open notes in the syllabus.

For maximum inclusion, you could discuss your requirements with the special services department at the university to see what they would recommend -- or at least prepare them for your standards.

  • 7
    +1 for disability awareness. Great suggestion to consult students with disability office. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:18
  • 10
    Most universities have procedures in place for dealing with students with disabilities and it is the responsibility of the student to notify the university of their disabilities and seek necessary accommodations. It is not up to the instructor to decide who has a disability and what accommodations are appropriate. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 22:00
  • I agree completely with your comment. It is often not the professor's responsibility. But it is something to consider and can avoid a conversation with the disability office when the student approaches them for accommodation.
    – cmm
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 3:08
  • 4
    As an instructor, you should never offer accommodations for disabilities on your own. You are inviting charges of doing it unfairly or contrary to policy or law. You should ALWAYS get your disability office involved if a student asks for a disability accommodation, even if you think you know the answer. You are an expert at what you teach, not at how to handle disabilities. Your university employs other people who are experts in those matters. Use them. Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 3:59
  • Point heard. I was not suggesting that a specific accommodation be offered to a particular student, or as a specific change to the classroom in anticipation of a particular student, but I understand that drawing the distinction can be error prone, and could run afoul of policies.
    – cmm
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 4:38

Am I being unreasonable/unprofessional by changing the requirements for the quiz "cheat sheet" 10 days in advance?

That is debatable. You raise good arguments for your change. I think your students might benefit from your change. Others might think otherwise.

But keeping the quiz as it was would have been as well acceptable, it was not a "must do" change. Students won't have confidence in getting a stable teaching/quizzing environment from you after this. Doing this change in the next course would have been better in my opinion.

Is the student overreacting?

Students should be allowed to voice their opinions freely. He did raise his concerns to you first and wrote the e-mail to the department later (or so I infer from your question). Had he e-mailed the department without going through you first then he would have been overreacting and unpolite.

Or are both of us in the wrong?

You(plural) are in disagreement.


As for "not fair" 10 days notice is ample - generous in fact.

You can change the conditions : removing the cheat sheets totally with 10 days notice is fine as well...

You could get a sample of students whose opinion you respect (ie ones who give you honest feedback, not just what you want to hear...) and have a discussion with them...

  • 11
    "you can change the conditions": I strongly disagree! You may can define the conditions, but once they are defined, changing them is something extraordinary. Why do you think that he can just change the rules however he wishes to?
    – Mayou36
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 14:24
  • 13
    "A sample of students whose opinion you respect." Really? So, basically if one is a teacher's pet, then the rules can be altered at their will. Who is the professor to pick a sample to discuss something that concerns all students?
    – padawan
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:00
  • 1
    @padawan why would you pick a "teacher's pet" unless you want to hear the feedback that fits what you want to prove? I put "students whose opinions you respect" to get the student's view rapidly from those students who have shown themselves mature enough as to offer you a relevant, considered opinion...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 16:48
  • 1
    "You can change the conditions : removing the cheat sheets totally with 10 days notice is fine as well..." Tell the students that they can have a cheat sheet, but it must be memorised and then left at home. Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 2:29
  • 2
    I think 10 days are quite generous too. I'm surprised to see many people opposed this. Having a cheat sheet is already generous. The purpose of cheat sheet according to the questioner is so that the students study the material by writing it themselves. If the student just copy paste digitally, then he does not satisfy the purpose. He is the reason why the questioner wants to change the rules. For me, he is overreacting.
    – kate
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 16:28
  1. Yes 2. No 3. No

or yes, slightly too late, sorry! unless you wanna break the students trust.
In the latter case: do whatever is legal in your department/country.

If the exam was midterm, you easily could have pointed that out then. That would not have been a problem for anyone. But now it is too late:

To address the debate whether 10 days are enough or not: It depends a lot on the course! But given the time-frame of half a semester, so months, 10 days is relatively short. Or "too short not to be clearly long enough"

Students are humans too, they have a lot of plans and preparation. They have to stick to strict rules (passing exams or byebye). Those rules are set like laws and, in general, cannot be changed in between (imagine a football play where the rules randomly change in between?!). If you slightly modify them early enough so that no one can really bring up a reason why this is to it's disadvantage, than you can change the rules. The student on the other hand brought up a very good reason why this close call is to is disadvantage. (reason for 1 & 2)

And to 3: No, he is doing absolutely the right thing. Students are in a hierarchical way below you. But you cannot do whatever you want! You tried to, the student noticed, reached you, you didn't agree, so he escalated to a higher institution. Perfectly, as taken from a textbook of "how to properly deal with hierarchies".

My advide: ASAP (!) tell them that everything can be used and learn from it (1. say it earlier and 2. restrict the cheat sheets to handwritten ones). Even better, change the exam. If the students who have printed the whole course really have an advantage, than the exam isn't very good. Ask more questions where you have to know the general ideas, know how things are related. Ask enough questions in the time allowing the prepared students to answer a lot and not allowing to read through the whole course again.

Sidenote: yes, probably you can legally do that. It depends a lot on your country. But it is something I would avoid as much as possible.

  • 2
    @ILiketoCode Unfortunately, people tend to side with the professor in case of a conflict, even though there is no rational reason. The tone might somewhat be disturbing, but this answer explains the situation plain and simple, IMHO.
    – padawan
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 14:54
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    -1 Evidences a fundamental misunderstanding of academic work. Faculty have flexibility; they are not in a suicide pact with a mistake on a first assignment. This is the danger of erroneous "syllabus is contract" talk in certain circles. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:16
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    @DanielR.Collins, interesting. What do you mean by "academic work"? This is a course for students, not academic work. I fully agree with your comment about academic research! But do you have exams in academic research? Do you throw people out because they are not able to answer you a few questions withing 3 hours? Is that how academia works? No! I think you agree. Is that how courses for students work? Yes! The rules are different, the two things are different. It's a 600 stud course, not a PhD/Master small group course...
    – Mayou36
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:43
  • 3
    You delve into the legal argument and state what is, IMO, false. The syllabus, by it's nature, becomes part of the contract under which the students have purchased enrollment in the course (paid tuition). Unless there's a school policy explicitly stating, or the syllabus explicitly states, that all terms in the syllabus are subject to change, then the terms in the syllabus are not something that the instructor gets to change on a whim. Without such statement, a student could bring successful suit to force the course to be taught to the syllabus and/or obtain damages for it not being so taught.
    – Makyen
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 20:31
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    Completely disagree: 10 days for such a relatively minor change is ample notice. And it is a minor change: if a student spent hours collating preprinted lecture slides then that’s their own fault (what they heck were they doing anyway?!). Else they should be able to transfer their cheat sheet into a hand-written format easily enouhg. Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 15:17

It might be different if you were changing the rules at the last minute, e.g., the day before the exam, or if your actions were arbitrary or unreasonable. That is not the case.

As an instructor at most universities, you have a lot of academic freedom to conduct your course in whatever way you like. It is not unreasonable to explain that you had intended that cheat sheets should be handwritten and that for the next exam, that is what you will require. I think that's what most of us require of cheat sheets anyway if we even allow them. (Personally, I don't allow them at all unless I'm teaching just one section of a course where they're allowed in the other sections.) Some students may complain and my answer would be that when they become faculty they can run their course however they like. For the moment, you're the instructor, you make the rules and you reserve the right to change them if you find they're not working. If they're dissatisfied, they can report that on the student evals (and you'll deal with the fallout.)

That said, to prevent future misunderstandings, it's helpful to remind students in your syllabus and in your first lecture that you reserve the right to make such changes to the course content, the assignments, the exams or the grading when appropriate. Students who don't like that can choose a different course or a different instructor.


Certainly if it was on the course syllabus, that printed or written 'cheat sheets' were allowed, you should stick to that.

If it was not on the syllabus, but you said at some point in class that the rules for quizzes would include that students could have printed or written 'cheat sheets', then you should stick with that.

If your rules for the first quiz were stated about a week or two before the first quiz (with no statement or implication that you would have the same rules for the second quiz), then I think it's fine to have different rules for the second quiz.

You said that the student complained to the department. You may want to go to the department chair for guidance if you have not gotten any response from that person.

To be honest, for one course, I wouldn't necessarily worry about it too much either way. Going forward, I would try to have relevant policies in the syllabus (even if they are: "Rules for each quiz/exam will be announced at least one week in advance of the quiz/exam. The same rules may not apply to each quiz/exam.")

Finally, I put cheat sheet in quotes in my reply because if they are allowed, they are not cheating.

  • Good point about the terminology. If allowed, it's probably better to describe them as, e.g., "one double-sided 8.5x11 sheet of hand-written notes". Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 13:39

I think the discussion about rules and timing for rule changes is good and important but missing a key aspect: Consider that the student may have spent a day's work or possibly more refining and perfecting his electronic cheat sheet. In his point of view, his work is tied to the sheet itself - he may not fully realize the additional value of the knowledge he gained during the preparation.

I was quite surprised that the student feels so upset

He is upset because from his point of view you destroyed hours of his work. For that it does not matter whether he could transcribe his digital sheet. It does not matter that he would be fine anyway given he is already well prepared. You might as well take a handwritten cheat sheet and literally rip that apart.

So to answer the question yes it is unreasonable to change the rules on short time, particularly with the given reason. And no I do not think the student is overreacting.

I don't like your reason, because I believe students should be given some flexibility to figure out how to learn effectively on their own - and that works differently for every student.

Edit: It seems to need clarification as it is not obvious to everyone. Creating a high quality original cheat sheet is a very time consuming process. Not only do you revisit in detail the entire course topic - which is why it is encouraged in the first place. It can also be very challenging to design the cheat sheet, e.g. compress the information and format it for easy retrieval - especially for a perfectionist.

This is something different than a copy-pasted cheat sheet. From the description it is almost certain, that the student in question did not just copy-paste his cheat sheet. Do not assume others use your own workflow and spend the same amount of time on preparation.

  • 2
    Hours of his work, copy pasting?
    – kate
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 16:29
  • 1
    @kate I tried to address that in an edit.
    – Zulan
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 17:00

Usually, it is a bad practice to alter the rules of anything discussed beforehand.

If students are aware of cheat sheet from the beginning of the semester, might might be prepared as they see fit, throughout the semester. I think the number of days does not matter, but the ratio of days do. For instance, if they knew that they could use cheat sheet 11 days ago, changing the policy in a day is not a big deal. However, if the students prepared their cheat sheets daily, for 60 days, then giving them 1/6th of the time to re-write them does not seem fair.

After all, students read the syllabus and then enroll the course. I find it like an agreement among three parties: the student, the professor, and the university. If it is written in the syllabus that students can use cheat sheet of their choice, better not to change anything. If a student who does not fulfill the attendance requirements must fail the class without exceptions, then the same thing goes for exams, quizzes, in terms of their dates, types and allowed materials.

  • 5
    At best, this answer is appropriate only for certain locales. At my institution, students do not have syllabi available pre-registration (nor any institution I've ever experienced). The idea that a whole semester could be wasted due to being handcuffed to a known bad syllabus policy, without any flexibility mid-semester, is historically untrue. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:20
  • 2
    @DanielR.Collins Taking courses and passing the classes is serious business and I strongly disagree on the "flexibility" part. The number of quizzes, number of exams, their overall percentages and the means of testing should be clear from the beginning. Else, nothing prevents the lecturers to alter some rules in favor of, or against to, some students. The alledgedly bad policy should be discussed with the board, hence each individual professor has their own good/bad practices.
    – padawan
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:36
  • 2
    I often have a statement like course policies are subject to change. It's also not clear that the "cheat sheet" rules were spelled out on the syllabus.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 16:48
  • 5
    Else, nothing prevents the lecturers to alter some rules in favor of, or against to, some students. — ...aside from basic fairness. Yes, every change affects some students positively and others negatively. But as long as the change is not made for that reason, mid-semester changes in course policies can be fair. For exactly the same reason, changes in course policies or syllabi between semesters can be fair, despite the possibility that some students might plan their courses years in advance.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:33
  • @JeffE Fair point. I forgot to use the word intentionally. However, planning to take the course is slightly different than taking the course and experiencing the change. Even if it is not fair between the semesters, the process is still deterministic.
    – padawan
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 21:09

These days, there are people who hardly ever write anything by hand, but use computers to do everything. Requiring a handwritten cheat sheet would seem to put an undue burden on these students. A better way of preventing the kind of cheating you describe is to require a minimum font size for printed cheat sheets.


I allow cheat sheets in an unrestricted format. However, I compose the exams/quizzes in such a way that if one tries just to look at the textbook/notes only when coming to the test instead of studying the material in advance, he will just have no time to both absorb the ideas from the notes and to apply them in the context of the problem he has to solve. So there is no need to change any policies. Just make sure that the "fool's way" to make a cheat sheet is inefficient and the students will figure it out after the first attempt themselves. Of course, this requires some thinking when composing the questions but in any subject that requires understanding rather than memorization (I'm teaching math) it is not too hard to make a question that distinguishes between the two. And if somebody still manages to both comprehend the text on the bad cheat sheet and to use it appropriately within 15 minutes, I just applaud him or her. I used to even allow open book/notes but found out that the results were on average lower this way and discontinued that practice. Of course, I tell the students on day one that there is a big difference between "a fool's cheat sheet" and "a smart person's cheat sheet" and emphasize that one needs to spend some time to make the cheat sheet an efficient tool, but what they write on that page and in what font is none of my business. The main reason for that is that no matter what formal restrictions you impose, they are smart enough to find a way around them, so I prefer to play the game with almost no rules exactly the way it is played in real life: you are given a problem and you are to solve it with whatever you have on your hands. If you can do it, fine. If not, I'm sorry for you. The only restriction is that you cannot communicate to other people, but that rule of the game has never been questioned, as far as I know.

So, if you still have those ten days, my advice is not to try to fight with the complaining students but to put a Machiavellian smile on your face and to say "OK, no rule changes. Just make sure that you understand the material well by the time you come to the test" and to think of how to compose the questions instead (I hope you haven't promised them anything like "your test questions will be exactly the same as your homework questions just with numbers changed". If you have, all I can say is that I'm sorry that you cornered yourself so thoroughly, but otherwise you have a huge space to outplay them without getting unfair, or giving a killer exam, or anything else that would be a pure revenge on your side).


But realistically speaking, take the time to address the student's complaints in class. There may be more who share the same sentiment but aren't vocal about it.

State your intent behind the policy (to have students review their notes and condense it) and how it did not turn out correctly (people were just minimizing slides verbatim), although it is poorly timed (versus right after the first quiz) 10 days is more than enough time for a student to properly create a written cheat sheet.

If they have additional complaints, state that you would be happy to discuss the matter with them one-on-one and that if they continued to disagree, they can bring the matter up the food chain.

  • 2
    I agree with this answer, but would like to add a point. When you address the issue in class, you can also take the time to make it a learning opportunity. You had given them the possibility to make a cheat sheet. This was clearly a pedagogical tool, intended for them to condense the lecture material for a better learning outcome. Some students took this to the limit (and beyond) by miniaturizing the course material. The students who took unfair advantage of this, ruined it for the rest. It is as simple as that. This is not pre-school, and the students in question should be able to see that.
    – nabla
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 10:42
  • 8
    -1. The fact that the rules can be set as the instructor wishes is irrelevant. Once the rules have been announced, it is unprofessional to change them without significant warning. Ten days is nowhere near that. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 11:17
  • 2
    @TobiasKildetoft I’m hoping you understood the part “in a sarcastic tone”. As for 10 days, that’s effectively two weeks. This is plenty of time. An unprofessional approach would be to announce the change the week of. I’ve had professors change due days on a whim, threaten students with Fs if they disagreed. I don’t know how you came to that conclusion, but put yourself in the shoes of that student who cried fowl. Can you not find 1 hour in 240 hrs to hand write your notes?
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 11:45
  • 9
    10 days is more than sufficient.
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 11:47
  • 5
    -1 for the sarcastic bits at the beginning.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 13:57

Contrary opinion: you should (and at many universities, must) stick to whatever you wrote in the course syllabus. Everything else is up to you. You're the expert on how to make your course as pedagogically rewarding as possible, not your students. (Of course, prepare to accept any consequences to your teaching evaluation scores.)

You've decided to make the course more valuable overall to your students, while slightly(*) penalizing good time management (a desirable trait) and slightly rewarding flexibility and adaptability (also desirable traits). Every decision you make in your class will have winners and losers; even by deciding to give an exam, you've rewarded students who test well, and penalized those who would have preferred assessment via a term paper or project. You must avoid discrimination and favoritism, and strive to be just, but rigorous, objective "fairness" is neither achievable nor desirable.

(*): Slightly. I have to say that 10 days seems more than ample for the task of transferring notes from typed to handwritten form. The real world will rarely show the students even this much structure and consideration.


Honestly, this is a pretty simple question and not really academia-specific.

If you made a (legal, etc.) promise, you need to stick by it as long as you reasonably can.
The answer is the same regardless of whether you promised lollipops, cheat sheets, or Ferraris.

If, on the other hand, you did not make the promise (e.g. if you made it clear that the policy might change closer to the exam), then you can change the policy and the student is overreacting.
In this case, though, note that this disclaimer needs to be made clear at every mention of the policy, not merely once at the beginning of the semester.

The question of whether the student is overreacting is, honestly, orthogonal to this.
It is very possible for someone to overreact to something and still be in the right about it.
I could see this being an overreaction depending on how much work the student put into it, but it doesn't really affect your response.

If the question was whether this is a good policy, that'd be a different story, but it's not.

  1. It is unreasonable to change the established conditions of the course, if this disadvantages any student. Obviously this change falls under this description. Apart from time spent in preparing the typed "cheat sheet", students have planned their time (including study time for this course) already, perhaps including a work schedule etc. Forcing them to devote additional study time, compared to previous norms, is a significant disadvantage, and they are right to complain. The right time to make this change is before the next time the course is taught.

  2. All the above notwithstanding, it is still possible to make the desired change, by leaning in (rather than running away) from the undesired behavior. Get a copy of the typed, miniaturized, "cheat sheet", of all the course slides. Include a copy with every exam yourself! Allow students a second "cheat sheet", but handwritten only. Surely there are materials not in the slides that is worth knowing -- from homework, other distributed materials, etc. Then write the exams in a manner that is not trivialized by the tiny writing.


Those students that simply photocopied lecture notes or textbook pages will do worse on the test in average, because they are very likely not well prepared.

Not your fault, let them have their bad grades.

You can still change the rules next semester.


I had always meet this type of cheatsheet only to be handwritten. Otherwise, students will exploit it. Even now, as lecturer, we are accepting only handwritten protocols preparation. Its absolutely fair and the purpose of the cheatsheet is to make student prioritize what will be written down. Well, stand up for your decision, and face complaints. Its a good decision. They exploited the original purpose and made you change your mind.

  • The argument isn't about handwritten or not, but changing the rules 10 days before the. exam. And most students didn't exploit anything.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 10:50

I would not force them, I would just say "FYI: Statistically students who take handwritten notes do 20% better." (or whatever %) If they choose not to take your advice that isn't your problem.


The purpose is not to disallow printed cheat sheets, but cheat sheets that are nothing more than copies of generally available materials. The idea is that creating a cheat sheet should force a student to study the material again and put it into a form they can write down; with my learning style writing the cheat sheet would be very valuable, but it wouldn't matter if I left it at home before the exam.

I suggest you disallow cheat sheets that are just copies of available materials and that the student's mum could create by going on the internet, collect materials, put them into a document and print in a really small font. And you allow anything that the student actually spent work on creating. Handwriting is quite pointless.

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