The 3 C's: Avoid these things the night before an exam

February 20, 2013
We asked our network of 78,000 tutors to weigh in on how students should spend those crucial days leading up to a big exam. The best way to avoid that moment of panic - when you realize you've got too much information and too little time to learn it - is to develop a fool-proof study strategy that works for you. Our study skills and test prep tutors help students identify habits that may hinder preparation and performance on the actual test day. These 3 habits were among the most commonly reported:


Critical thinking and cognitive clarity occur when the brain is able to effectively process and categorize new information. Often times, newer concepts build on existing ones, and when those links are clearly understood the result is a higher rate of retention. Cramming a large amount of information into the brain in a short amount of time and expecting to retain it is difficult. If you find yourself in a bind the night before, “you need to assess your current understanding of the topics and then prioritize the material that you are trying to digest,” says tutor John F. from New Orleans. “Look to see if your chapters have an executive type summary either at the beginning or end of the chapter,” writes John in his blog. When you are able to put the topics into context with things already committed to long-term memory, you will have a greater chance of recalling the new information during your exam.

According to UC-San Diego psychologists as reported on, if you can’t avoid cramming, be strategic with your timing. If you have only one date on which to study, choose a day that's closer to when you first learned the material than when you take the test—but not too close - you need to allow the information to sink in. Aim for a few days after you are first introduced to a topic to revisit it and review the sections that are unclear. It is unrealistic to revisit material the day before an exam and expect to magically understand concepts that were unclear from the start.

Another reason to cut out cramming the night before an exam is sleep. Most teachers and researchers agree that a few hours of extra sleep is more valuable than those last few hours of studying. At a certain point, you will be undoing any productivity you accomplished during your study session because the brain consolidates memory and processes the new information during the deep sleep phase. Plus, there is such a thing as “ over-learning.” According to, once you master your vocabulary list, or recite all of your history flashcards perfectly, any study beyond that point is considered over-learning.


A cup of coffee is harmless, right? Consider these side effects: increased tolerance and dependence, insomnia, possible dehydration, anxiety, headaches, irritability, fatigue and depression. This list does not set the scene for a mindset conducive to productivity and studying.

There are three main chemical processes behind the caffeine phenomenon. Caffeine suppresses adenosine action which is the compound that makes you feel sleepy. It increases adrenaline in your body which explains why some people feel their heart race or become sensitive to noise and distraction. Additionally, it revs up the production of dopamine which stimulates the pleasure center in your brain. The result of all these mechanisms is the feeling of boundless energy!

The jury is still out on the true effects of caffeine and whether the “energy boost” we feel lends itself to increased learning potential. While caffeine has been linked to increased alertness, students will see no major improvement in memory or complex thinking, according to U.S. Army Research Institute psychologist Harris Lieberman. In short, the increased enthusiasm we feel when preparing for a late night study session is nothing but a façade. Considering all of those nasty side effects that compound over time, that Venti coffee doesn’t sound so tempting after all.

"When people drink too much caffeine, the brain sometimes reacts to caffeine like it reacts to adrenaline--a fight or flight reaction that keeps them from staying cool and thinking clearly. When we are in panic mode, we don't do our best thinking. For example: If we were running from a tiger or lion, we would have a hard time thinking about how to do an Algebra problem, right?,“ says tutor Paul C. from Birmingham, AL. Caffeine has been linked to increased anxiety for regular drinkers, and many students can attest that anxiety is already running high during exam week.

Additionally, caffeine is not a one size fits all solution. Ever notice how some people can down an espresso after dinner and head right to bed within an hour or two? And then there are those that report disruption in their sleep patterns even after consuming a caffeinated beverage 8 hours earlier. Caffeine stays in your system for up to 9 hours, so make sure you are aware of the effects caffeine has on you, specifically. (Source:


It may be comforting to commiserate with friends and classmates who share the same test-induced anxiety the night before an exam. Voicing insecurities and nerves in a group setting may be cathartic but it is not a productive use of time.

Studying with an unprepared and easily intimidated friend from your class, which you may disguise as a “study session,” could negatively affect any confidence you’ve built up in preparation for the exam. It is a result of what psychologists call "emotional contagion" or "social contagion," which is the transfer of negative emotions simply by association. “Attitudes are catching, so be sure the people you surround yourself with are carrying the 'emotional contagion' you want to have,” writes Chicago Tribune contributor Robert Pagliarini in his article. If you prefer to study in a group setting, try to arrange study sessions with positive, assertive members of the class who demonstrate confidence in the classroom.

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