Friday, February 3, 2012

Go Ahead and Cheat

Do you remember when you were a student in high school, and your teacher said to the class something like this?

"For our upcoming midterm, you can use a cheat sheet."

I remember my heart rate would go up.  My mind would race.  I would begin scheming about how I would really make the teacher pay on this one.  I was going to anticipate EVERY conceivable question and problem that my teacher could come up with, and I was going to know the answer.  I was going to have examples written the way I wanted them, in a way that worked for me.  I was going to draw diagrams that were labelled and color-coded.  The formulas would basically solve themselves.  And not just that, I would get together with some buddies, and we would collude on all of the different things that our teacher could possibly think of.  There would be no way that the teacher could beat us on this midterm.  NO way.

And so, with painstaking organization, the development of the cheat sheet would begin.  Scouring class notes, my buddies and I would analyze what we felt was important.  We would argue and debate.  We would find interesting mnemonics to remember different things, some agreed upon and some we would make for ourselves.  We would find creative ways to maximize the use of space on our sheets.  A couple of us would go to the computer lab and minimize the printed portions and digitize our graphs.  The final product was a work of art--we were ready.

An interestingly, when the test day would come, our teacher would have a knowing smile on his face.  Each of us would come in brash and brazen, daring the teacher to say "Hey, you can't use that!".  We were ready and armed with our retort "YOU SAID we could use a cheat sheet!", but he would never say a word.  He would just nod with a rueful smile, as if to say "You guys REALLY got me this time.".   We would gleefully write our midterm, smiling and laughing because we had outguessed our teacher.  What a sucker, he never should have underestimated us.

We had been afforded the opportunity to be creative in making our cheat sheets.  To collaborate with our peers to determine what we might need to be put on them. To think critically about what might be on the midterm.  We got to use some computer skills in making our sheets.  We learned how to access information and put it into a useable fashion that would allow us to apply it to problems we would face.  We learned how to learn.

This is an example from 20 years ago.  But in my mind, it is an excellent example of what we need to continue to do with learners in our schools.  We need to find ways to make the CONTENT (in my example, the subject of the test, which by the way I couldn't possibly remember) teach our students the PROCESS (making the cheat sheet, of which I pretty much remember every detail).

It is no secret that our students will remember little of the content that is presented to them in schools.  For myself, while I do remember how to make a roux from Foods class, spit out a quadratic equation and maybe even do a Punnett square, I have certainly forgotten countless bits of information from thousands of hours spent in classes in high school and university.  This is why it is so encouraging to see more and more of the current educational discourse focus upon teaching students to communicate, to collaborate, to think critically, and to acquire the skills that will help them to be adaptable learners in society.

This is not to say that there should be no content within different curricula.  I believe there are certain things that are important for students to learn in their educational career.  However, if we can approach our content knowing that the likelihood of much of it being retained is not high, I believe that we can begin to look at our lessons in a different manner.  In a manner that allows our students to branch out and develop the skills that will allow them to find the problems that have yet to be created and solve them for the future. As a result, I want work with our staff to continue to investigate strategies that have an emphasis on developing skills as much as learning content.  To teach skills like those found here...

And maybe like my Physics teacher in high school, I can encourage them to let students 'cheat' on the content to learn the process!


  1. Just a quick note to let you know that I loved this bit, Cale -- and that I'm going to give my kids the chance to make cheat sheets for every test from this point forward!

    At the VERY least, the conversations about what content to put on the cheat sheet will be more studying than my kids typically do!

    Hope you're well,

  2. Love the post Cale! I had a similar experience and am absolutely certain I put more time and effort into the cheat sheet than I ever did studying for any single test.

  3. Cale,

    Funny...I allow my students to create cheat sheets as well. I always laugh when they get done with the test and tell me they didn't even need to look at it. They put so much effort into creating them they don't even need them when the test comes.

  4. Ask Rob L. some time about what we've cooked up for SS10... big map/chart/notes study buddies for unit tests and final exams. This is combined with a new emphasis on problem-solving and use of benchmarks of critical inquiry (blogged about). I've used open-notes assessments for just about everything going on 12 years now; it has been challenging to convince each new group of students that they SHOULD work together, that I'm not going to collect their "busywork" but I will assess what they've learned and that the "busywork" was actually useful. The results correlate with closed-notes assessment, with the difference being that when the student are armed with their own study tools, they can tackle more interesting and challenging questions.

    I understand the capacity for critical thinking vs content debate, but I'm quite convinced that learners gain ability and success through engaged contexts where they both accumulate experience and self-correct when something isn't working (content and critical inquiry are co-dependent). Passionate, knowledgeable teachers who can assess as well as they can navigate curriculum are a key part of the equation. I know lots of caring teachers who emphasize problem-solving, but the really great ones do so in a context where they experts in their subject and deft at getting students to make connections. So, content may not always be the goal, but it is necessary for the learning to have a context in which mastery can be developed. For example, as a Socials teacher I feel part of my job is to introduce students the the narrative of human history and for them to find their place in it. We must be submersed in content in order for the story to unfold, but the case studies and learning contexts can come from current events as easily as the textbook. At no point can we walk away from the content and just think about thinking... metacognition without context quickly turns into narcissism. I often wonder whether the rich content and brilliant teachers we can access via the internet has dulled some educators into thinking they don't have to "know their stuff" anymore. I think we'll find that access alone does not guarantee learning. I notice that most "21st century learning" proponents talking about problem-solving over content are often purveyors of "access" - they have a gizmo or service to offer that shortcuts student access to content. That's why it's cool when students build their own cheat sheets, it cuts out the middleman!

  5. This is a simple and eloquent post on promoting problem solving and critical thinking. Thank you so much for sharing. I too had the same experience as a student processing the content prior to the big test (product). Boy, did I work diligently on that tiny notecard. I filtered through a lot of my notes and the text just to make sure I had the "high" needs items on my cheat sheet.

    I also agree with Thielmann as he pointed out that a lot of service providers promote a tool that will access the information and not necessary problem-solve through the process of understanding the content. An accessible tool for critical thinking and problem solving is facilitating the "process" as students grapple with the content!


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