…but I still try not to call them that in class!

In a lot of my college classes I allow note sheets on tests, but not for the reasons you think. Just one piece of paper, or one 3×5 notecard — and it’s all a psychological trick.

I allow note sheets — and you should make them — because the simple process of trying to cram all the “useful stuff” onto a little piece of paper makes you think critically about what you’re trying to learn.

“Is this formula important?”

“Can I fit this whole example onto the page? How could I break it down?”

“What’s the pattern for this so I don’t have to draw the whole unit circle?”

Chunking and thinking about what’s important

Chunking is what researchers call the process of putting together small pieces of information so that you can keep them together. Chunking is part of why it’s easier to remember a sentence like, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” in order than, “Sandwich littoral tennis grasping it’s and fang accident to” — same number of words. We put a structure and a meaning on the first sentence, and maybe a picture, and it’s not so hard to remember. You can do that with math learning too: for max-min problems, you have a story of what you should do; for trig problems, you have a picture of what you want to think about. When you’re trying to compress your knowledge onto a piece of paper, you start chunking along the way and you actually learn a lot!

You’re also evaluating the big picture, looking at everything you’ve learned and trying to figure out what is important, what’s at the base of the subject and the test questions, what smaller ideas depend on. This thinking about thinking is also really important for putting it all in context and helping it stick.

Does a note sheet really help on a test?

Yes and no.

Yes when it helps you prevent typos in a formula you don’t quite remember. Yes when you wrote down an example you mostly understand (but not quite) and a similar question comes up on the test. Yes when it reminds you to put +C!

No, because you did the learning when you put together the note sheet. I’ve seen people totally forget their note sheet and ace the test — it was doing the chunking and metacognition that was useful. No if you’re using someone else’s sheet, like one printed off the internet! You didn’t do the work to put it together, so you don’t know where to look for the information you want, and you don’t remember how to use it anyway.

How do I make a good note sheet, then?

More later!

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