What are the effects of allowing students take one paper, say of A4 size, full of whatever they want, into an exam? It might be called a cheat sheet or something similar. Students might write it by hand, they might copy one from someone else, they might use $LaTeX$, etc. Anything goes.

I have taken such an exam twice in physics studies, but would be interested in the experiences of people who have assigned such exams, and literature on the subject, if any.

I am particularly interested in university-level mathematics courses, which probably include proofs and maybe calculations.

  • $\begingroup$ For those that may not be familiar with it, A4 is a common paper-size, comparable to the size of "letter" paper. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 12:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I've never understood the one-sheet limit: either give a sufficiently readable booklet with formulae of your choice or let the students bring whatever book they want. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano One-sheet limit forces the student to decide what they will bring into the exam. See the answer of Chris Cunningham, for example. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 7:04

3 Answers 3


I believe allowing students to prepare notes for use on an exam is a valuable way to help them focus their exam studying. I do not see the creation of the sheet as a waste of time. To make the notes, they need to reflect on the course and think about what was important, then summarize the information.

However, I allow a handwritten notecard on exams rather than a possibly-typed full sheet of paper, because I am worried about the two issues below:

  • If allowed to photocopy or type the note sheet, students will tend to ask their most-competent friend to make the notes, then use them. These students lose the study benefits of creating the notes.

  • If allowed too much space, students will tend to copy down entire solutions to problems from solutions manuals or notes, hoping that they will see a similar problem on the exam which will allow them to copy the outline of the correct solution and change the numbers. This leads to solutions being turned in on exams that look like cheating attempts, because they are very well-written but completely incorrect or irrelevant. Confronting students in these situations is very awkward, so I prefer to prevent them from happening.

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    $\begingroup$ This. Part of learning the material is learning what is important, so a large part of the grade for the exam may come down to whether the student identified what is important to the course. I like the idea of the "cheat sheet"; it allows the test creator to set problems whose difficulty is in knowing what formulas to apply rather than in recalling those formulas. This makes it more real-world-like. $\endgroup$
    – shoover
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ This is what I came to say. A lot of the value of a formula sheet is the making of it. Having a not-too-big sheet means they have to think through which information is most important, or how to distill several things into a more compact form. That's useful work. But it should be clear enough which formulas are important that they won't forget something essential for a problem. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ I can only support your opinion and the two reasons. Making the sheet is a most valuable training. Therefore never allow for copies or printed matter. I have used that method for many years. Of course exam questions must focus on applications of the formulas, not only on reproduction of what is written on the sheet. I tell the students on the first day about that sheet (others know it from older students already). So they immediately will start to prepare it. Write it and shorten it during the whole semester. Learning by writing! $\endgroup$
    – user37237
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 20:32

I would recommend that the instructor give everyone a premade formula sheet. This keeps things more fair and focused, and is common practice on standardized tests.

  • Everyone is working from the same resource.
  • Students don't waste time on the drafting/formatting of their sheet.
  • Students who can write smaller or have better vision are not advantaged.
  • Many textbooks come with a formula card like this included.
  • The common sheet can be practiced and referenced in class and homework.
  • If a student fails to bring a sheet, then a standard copy can be provided.
  • If there are special items that the instructor feels must be memorized by heart (e.g., Pythagorean theorem), then this can be clarified and enforced.

I think for most courses, it is not a good idea. Not only should the students be familiar with the material, they should be practiced at using it. How practiced are you at doing the problems, if you don't remember the formula?


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