Because I teach the very earliest programming classes, giving exams is something that I do frequently. In the Python classes the exams are done on a computer where students can write and test their code, but I still find that it’s helpful to allow them to bring some sheets of notes with them. It’s my experience, both as an instructor and student, that preparing note sheets is a good way to review material. Having some set of notes that they’ve preparing also seems to calm some students, which is important in stressful situations like exams.

I require that they hand in their notes with the exam so that I can review them, and I give them a (generous) page limit for the notes. But other than that, there are no restrictions on what they can place on the note sheets. They can be handwritten, typed, or some combination. They can include pages from the book, stuff found online, code discussed in class, or anything else they think would be helpful. One of the most interesting things about grading exams is reading their note sheets to see what they felt was important to have during the exam.

Over time some patterns have emerged. First, despite the fact that I allow them a minimum of 5 sheets of notes, and in some cases up to 20 sheets of notes, many students bring nothing to the exam at all. Still others bring the barest of note sheets, with the following showing a good example from my recent midterms:



The people with the bare-bones note sheets are almost always handwritten and rarely more than 1-2 pages. On the other extreme are the people who have carefully distilled all of the most important things from the class notes, examples, and homework. A particularly well-organized example of that can be seen below:



Tabs with summaries of sections are rare, but having sections for each part/assignment of the class aren’t for the well-documented note sheets. But my favorite part of note sheets are the people who put pictures in there. I tell them that diagrams and pictures are fine, and some people get creative. For example, one of my students on the most recent midterm included the following picture:



I have no idea what it is, what it means, or why he included it, but it did make me laugh. Another category of pictures are the memes, like the following from the recent round:



The purpose of this one is certainly clear and also made me laugh.

What I find most interesting is that it’s nearly impossible to tell from the note sheets who is going to do well. Students who have bare-bones notes are equally represented among those who earn near-perfect scores and those who earn failing scores. The same can be said for students who have extensive note sets or pictures or memes. So while the note sheets give me a lot of information about individuals, like who has a good sense of humor, they haven’t yet helped me to figure out what advice to give students about studying. Maybe that’s because studying is an individual thing, so that there are no hard and fast rules.