5 of 5 added link to my answer below

Is it unreasonable to change the rules of a quiz/exam one week in advance?

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.

Questions:

  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.