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Test Taking at MIT by Krystal L. '17

The beauty of The Cheat Sheet

These are cheat sheets.

I found them in my backpack this last week while I was cleaning things out for the new semester, a gentle reminder of last semester’s trials and tribulations in 7.05 Biochemistry (bottom left) and 20.310 Biomechanics (the other three pages).

For each exam in 20.310, we were allowed to fill one 8.5” X 11 sheet of paper, front and back, with whatever information we thought might be useful. For 7.05, we were allowed five pages.

I am convinced that there is an inverse correlation between the size of my handwriting and my grade point average, a fact that has been thus far corroborated by one year of cheat sheet test taking. Also I made this graph. And if it’s in a graph, it must be true.

In order to maximize the amount of information that I am able to distill into just one sheet of paper, I use ball point pens (anything else will just bleed, making it harder to write in tight spaces) and write in neat columns to maximize the amount of space used. Color coded headings also help with finding what you need when you need it. Images can be difficult to format, but are usually necessary.

My first approach is to comb through all of the lecture notes for a unit and copy down virtually everything that was covered. You never know what odd equation or briefly mentioned concept might appear on a test. Once lecture notes have been copied down, I move onto key concepts or equations that I feel might be tested, followed by the copying down of any pset or practice exam questions that I think might be relevant in order to fill in the rest of the space.

To fit everything I want into a cheat sheet, I have to get my handwriting down to “teeny”. “Not teeny enough” just isn’t going to cut it.

Creating these cheat sheets is no walk in the park. They can take hours, predominantly because the physical act of copying down content is quite time consuming. But having everything that was ever covered in the class alongside you during an exam is worth every minute.

One could argue that cheat sheets as a learning instrument in classes are there to encourage students to study the material before the exam and bring in only the essential ideas and formulas on their limited sheet of paper that they have condensed after rigorous studying. After all, if they were going to let you bring in everything, why not just make it an open notes test? Or perhaps the theory is that the physical act of copying notes over again will better ingrain the information into your head?

Regardless, the fact remains that even with all of my lecture notes on my cheat sheets, the exams can be difficult.

Exams at MIT are rarely just fact recall. Sure there will be the occasional question that requires you to know something cold, but for most of the classes I’ve taken, the test questions end up being an application of learned concepts to something entirely different. So having all of the formulas and facts laid out for me isn’t enough, I have to know how to use them and to think on my feet.

One of the biggest differences between freshmen GIRs and sophomore major classes that I noticed was the shift from memory based exams to cheat sheet dependent ones. 8.02, 7.012, 18.02 and many of the other general classes that I took did not allow cheat sheets at the exam. We were tasked with memorizing a small handful of equations or concepts per unit and then tested on our ability to use them in relatively familiar settings. Beyond the introductory classes, beginning with 7.03 and 20.110 in the fall semester of sophomore year, the content became more extensive and complicated and the reliance on cheat sheet mediated test taking became commonplace. By allowing students to bring in cheat sheets, professors are given the freedom to test specific equations or concepts without having to worry about whether or not a student was able to memorize 12 different complex formulas. They are able to focus on testing comprehension of these formulas and application of the many concepts.

Even though I haven’t finalized my class schedule for this semester, I’m already gearing myself up for another round of exams and the inevitable rash of hand cramps that I’ll be powering through as I try to cram as much information as I physically can onto an everyday 8.5” x 11”.