Category Archives: Learning

Cheat Sheets & Wrappers

Crystal candies

For the past year or so I’ve been allowing students to use a note card, essentially a “cheat sheet,” when completing the single in-class “exam” in my microeconomics course. I put exam in quotes because I refer to the assessment as a quiz. It’s essentially an exam; it carries the same weight as a test. But, like calling an assignment a warm-up instead of homework, naming it a quiz makes it somewhat less scary.

Students appreciate having their card during the quiz. From the learning standpoint, I see it as an incentivized study activity. To be most helpful during the exam, students have to really think about the content. What do they understand best? What areas are most confusing? How can they use the card to clarify understanding?  How should the content be organized? What are the priorities? What are the interrelationships between and among concepts?

Song, Guo & Thuente (2016) report a positive correlation between the quality of the card, in terms of organization and content presentation, and exam performance.  My students’ quiz track similarly to their card quality.  The key questions for me are: Do better students already know how to study and prepare the cards? Or, can weaker students be coached on card preparation as a study strategy, to improve learning and academic performance?

Focusing on the students who have been less academically successful, I’ve become very intentional about discussing study strategies during class this semester. I handed out the cards this week, describing their preparation as a learning activity, not just an aid during the quiz.

I set aside just a few minutes of class time to talk about how and when to prepare them. Preparing the card is best done after the student has invested some time in the material, discovering potential problem spots.  We discussed a timeline for gapped study.  I reminded them of practice questions, resources and active learning strategies.

Of course, I also reviewed the “rules” for the cards.

  • The card must only have information on one side.
  • Their name goes on the other side.
  • Cards are turned in with their exam.
  • Content on the card must be handwritten. No multiple reductions of cut-and-pasted content.

Another twist I’m adding this term is a post-quiz wrapper. Here are the details.

This activity is designed to give you a chance to reflect on your quiz performance and, more importantly, on the effectiveness of your preparation. Please answer the questions sincerely. Your responses will be collected to inform instruction; they have no impact on your grade.

  1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for the quiz? _______
  2. What percentage (%) of your time was spent
  • Reading or re-reading the textbook
  • Self-testing / reciting
  • Reviewing homework & classwork solutions
  • Reworking problems & in-class practice
  • Watching the screencasts
  • Reviewing your own notes
  • Preparing the note card

Other? Please explain.

3. What areas do you think were most challenging on the quiz?

  • Trouble with the computations
  • Unclear about vocabulary
  • Confusion about the graphs
  • Lack of understanding of concepts
  • Careless mistakes

Other? Please explain.

  1. Did you feel prepared for the quiz? Are you surprised by your grade? Please explain.
  2. What advice would you give to future students preparing for the quiz?

I’ll share the takeaways in a future post.  What are your thoughts or experiences with cheat sheets? Have you asked students to reflect on how they used them or what they discovered about themselves as learners from preparing them? Please share!

Reference: Song, Y., Guo, Y., Thuente, D. (2016). A Quantitative Case Study on Students’ Strategy for Using Authorized Cheat-sheets. IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference Paper. 10.1109/FIE.2016.7757656, 1-9.



Discourse in the Classroom- Now more than ever

I’ve often wished I taught in the humanities. I imagine lively discussions in classes dealing with art, poetry, history, and philosophy. Contrast this with my actual teaching: debits and credits, marginal cost computations, and graphical analyses. Integrating classroom discussion in technical contexts is difficult.

But working with faculty across disciplines reveals my imagination is vastly different than reality. Literature, history, philosophy and art teachers find discussion-teaching and promoting student interaction challenging too.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) survey findings on student attitudes toward free speech reminds me of the value of classroom discussion in learning. (Reported by Inside HigherEd here) Two points struck me:

  • About 92% of students surveyed believe it is important to be part of a campus where they are exposed to ideas other than their own.
  • When students hear an opinion they disagree with in class, about 60 percent said they would attempt to understand their classmates’ views — 28 percent said they might avoid future interactions with the person with a dissenting opinion, but only 5 percent thought the person shouldn’t have expressed it.

What are the implications for teaching and learning? More than half the students surveyed say they are willing to hear each other out, to consider alternate viewpoints. Are we taking full advantage of the opportunities to get students listening and learning from each other? What insights and perspectives might be gained as students, from a range of backgrounds and life experiences, share their understandings of content and issues?

Of course, getting students to talk, particularly about sensitive topics isn’t easy. Many students don’t want to participate. Others do so reluctantly, offering short, tentative comments. When only a few students participate, the rest of the class gets tired of hearing them. The class may stop listening. If only a few students answer, rather than thinking about the question, the rest of the class may wonder when the over-participator will speak up. If the students who are not speaking are waiting for the over-participators to speak, they aren’t developing critical thinking skills, crafting a response, or defending their position. Class discussions can become narrow in focus, representing only the views and perspectives of the small percentage of students who choose to speak.

It’s not just students who hesitate to engage in classroom dialogue. Discussion teaching presents challenges for the teacher too. Discussions are unpredictable. Outcomes are messier to obtain and define. Teachers need to shift from expositor of knowledge to discussion facilitator. That requires a different set of skills, not typically part of graduate training and different from the ways in which many of us were taught.

But teachers are in a unique position to provide opportunities for students to practice discourse, as part of discipline-based learning. Now, more than ever, students need opportunities to learn how to discuss topics with reasoned statements, supported by evidence, without resorting to name calling and hostility.

Here are a few resources on facilitating classroom discussion, to help you get started or reinvigorate your discussion-teaching repertoire.

Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Jones, R. C. (2008). The “Why” of Class Participation, A Question Worth Asking. College Teaching, 56(1), 59-63.

Petress, K. (2006). An Operational Definition of Class Participation. College Student Journal, 40(4), 821-823.

Welty, W. M. (1989). Discussion Method Teaching: How to Make it Work. Change, July-August, 40-49.

Learning Insecurities

I recently read a piece by Lisa Shroyer in Interweave called Lisa’s List: 7 Insecurities all Knitters Have.” She describes a woman sitting next to her at a brioche class (a stitch technique, not the bread). The woman called herself a terrible knitter. Shroyer refutes that claim, identifying general learning insecurities of knitters. Several points clearly connect to academic learning.

“Tight knitting” can be reframed as “tight learning.” Novice learners are tense. There are numerous, simultaneous details requiring attention.  Tight knitting and learning goes with fear of mistakes, unwillingness to take learning risks, and an unwillingness to share or collaborate from fear of appearing foolish. To reduce tightness, ask students to remember what it was like to learn how to ride a bike. Words like tense, wobbly, and a little scary will come to mind. With practice, confidence grows and tension eases. Let’s remind students that learning starts wobbly but gains fluency with experience, training and practice.

Knitting an “ugly sweater” is akin to bombing an exam. Mistakes happen. Under-estimating the challenge, investing too little time or effort, and overestimating ability are part of being a novice. It’s not possible to learn without producing a few clunkers along the way. Shroyer puts it this way: “We’re all bad at things before we’re good at them. It’s how the universe works.”  

Consider offering more frequent exams.  Test early in the term to provide feedback to students sooner.  Provide strategies for students to learn from a poor performance.

Odd color combinations and mismatched pattern – yarn combinations are a variation on the “ugly sweater.” Learners need a safe place to experiment, to put concepts together and discover first hand what does and doesn’t work. The delete button and old fashioned erasers are tangible reminders: mistakes happen. Fortunately, they can help us learn. Since mistakes are bound to occur, teachers need to provide opportunities for them to happen in low-stakes situations.

“I’m not good enough / It looks too hard.” What learner hasn’t experienced feelings of doubt and inadequacy? When I feel this way, I remember encouragement my mother gave me through this analogy. If you are standing still and watch cars whizzing by on the highway, it’s intimidating. It’s easy to wonder how on earth we’ll ever be able to navigate that route. The answer: enter the ramp, increase speed, and merge. Once you’re in the flow it’s not so scary.  Teachers can be explicit about the ramp, the systematic increase in skills/knowledge/background that help students build up speed, accuracy and ability.  What seemed scary or impossible at the start of the course can be broken into segments, allowing for concepts and understanding to (e)merge. 

“My technique is weird / I knit slowly.” These concerns stem from peer comparisons. Unless technique is critical, as in medical or technical disciplines, differences in approach, style, and method should be expected and perhaps encouraged. Refrain from comparing students. Incorporate analogies like the tortoise and hare.  Discuss the ways learning is more like a marathon than a sprint. Not every runner has the same technique. Finishing well can be more meaningful than finishing first.

“I never finish anything.” Students often overemphasize product. Process is important too.  Sometimes I knit for the sake of knitting- it relaxes me. Other times I am focused on producing a garment I am anxious to wear. To help students attend to process, provide explicit examples of the steps of learning. Provide opportunities for students to discover how much their understanding of complex concepts has increased over time.

Learning is hard, but it doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Effective teachers consider content and affect. When we address common student fears we promote an environment where cognitive energy focuses on the challenges inherent to learning content, instead of unproductive insecurities.


Brioche Cowl. Persistence pays off!  Not perfect, but a big improvement from last year.