cheat sheets

The reference yesterday in I steal learning was not about literally stealing information, of course. The passage I quoted from Margaret Drabble’s book The Red Queen, was all about the clandestine nature of accumulating forbidden knowledge. Far from being elusive, knowledge today is all but crammed down our students’ throats by schools and parents—at least, that’s how they feel about it. That’s why the idea of offering cheat sheets is so illuminating.

Have you ever watched a teenage boy seek endlessly on the web for just the right ‘cheat’ key to help him unlock a particularly frustrating level of a video game? It makes me downright envious. Here’s a kid who won’t click on spellcheck to suggest the correct spelling of a word, yet will turn down food and water to pursue another lead in his quest for the right key.

I discovered the magic of the forbidden the first time I taught Frankenstein to a class of upper-division college students. The upcoming exam included 20 quotations from the novel that they would be expected to explicate and put in context of the Romantic period. They were terrified, so I set aside an entire class period for them to work in groups on a list of 6 quotes. Before the bell rang, I hinted that a lot more quotes could be found at the class website. Over the weekend, I watched as the site’s click stats jumped skyward.

Actually, the cheat sheet at the website contained 125 quotes, and the 20 that comprised the test were on it. Even though I revealed the test to the students, I figured that if they studied all 125 quotes, they would know that book pretty well. In effect, what they were doing was over-studying, and it worked. Except for two students who failed because they never cracked the cover of the book, the rest of the class received an A or a B. It was the overall highest grade for an exam in that class.

Now, I could have distributed a hand-out of all those quotes. I have tried that on other projects with far less impressive results, but the appeal is in seeking out the keys. I promise you, it’s the lure of the forbidden, the cheat, that counts.



  1. lhuff said,

    May 16, 2008 at 5:20 am

    I love it. I distributed one of those hand-outs this year of quotes from The Great Gatsby. I love your idea of going green, of going online. What if students actually compiled the list of quotatable quotes from a work–on a wiki?

  2. ggratton said,

    May 16, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Hi Lisa, I completely agree that the students themselves should be providing the quotes, and wikis and document sharing make it possible. Why should we have all the fun 🙂 ? Garnet

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