Exam Prep – What Doesn’t Work


Spring exams, mid-terms, finals, chapter tests, SAT’s, ACT’s etc. are part of a students life and never seem to end when you live that life. As we get to Spring recess you or your student are probably planning study schedules with the very best of intentions. But somehow, life gets in the way and you find cramming the night before that big exam is the only way too feel prepared. You know that staying up all night to cram before the exam negatively impacts your performance and grades. You also know you are unlikely to remember much beyond the exam but we still do it!  Usually this is OK for those elective classes, but when it is a core course or you major you will find that you have lost some of the building blocks of future studies and will need to relearn those missing bits.

Many students who struggle (especially with science and math) are missing a couple of building blocks in the foundations of their knowledge base. This may have been due to a plethora of factors, but cramming is one of the biggest culprits. Sustained learning throughout the year helps you to commit information to long term memory, making it available for use as you go from one grade or course to the next. Cramming may get that info in to your brain for the short term, but it will be gone before you can say Summer.

However, if you must cram here are a few tips.

1. Pulling an all nighter: Teenagers need 8-9 hours of sleep a night. A study by Dr. Avi Sadeh reported in the New York Magazine found that losing one hour of sleep can reduce your cognitive abilities by two years. This means that if you are in the eighth grade and miss an hour of sleep, you will perform at a sixth grade level. Imagine what pulling an all-nighter does to your ability to perform academically. You can’t recover lost sleep but try to get a power nap in if possible before going into the exam. Remember to set a couple of alarms!

2. Candy and caffeine: Your brain uses 20% of your energy intake even though it only accounts for 2% of your body mass. You need fuel to keep that motor running. Cramming students tend to opt for a high sugar, high caffeine intake to stay awake all night. This means that your brain does not have the proteins and carbohydrates it needs to function which leads to reduced memory retention and a lack of cognitive functioning that you need for complex questions. If you must cram, steer clear of refined sugar and go for fruits (especially akai and blueberries), whole grains and proteins. For your caffeine intake, rely on green tea.

3. Too much information: Although it is possible to cram a certain amount of information the night before an exam, the exhaustion, stress and caffeine can have a really negative effect on your exam performance. Information crammed will be forgotten and will mean you have more work to do next semester. Your brain is like a sponge, but even a sponge can only hold so much water. The older you get, the more information you will need to retain and doing so effectively can only be done with time and dedication. Cramming the night before may work in the lower grades, but there is simply too much information for higher grade students to do so effectively. College and University is much the same, but freshmen need to beware of the initial courses in their majors since they tend to require the most retention now and throughout their studies.

Start now and plan ahead for your midterms and finals.  Your brain, body will be glad you did. Plus you will get better grades!

Notes: 1. Dr. Avi Sadeh has a nice book (Sleeping Like a Baby) on getting your baby to sleep that can be beneficial to parents.  2. Inspiration for this post came from a recent entry on the Tutor Doctor blog titled ‘Cramming: 3 dumb things to avoid‘.

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Filed under Improved Learning, My Experiences

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