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What to Do the Night Before an Exam

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By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

The night before an exam can be stressful. Much of this stress comes from last-minute studying and trying to cram a lot of information in a short amount of time. 

But top students don’t operate this way. Top students spend the night before an exam simply reviewing what they already studied and learned. They can do this because they did the real work on the days and weeks leading up to the test.

In this blog post, I share 8 strategies for what to do the night before an exam so you feel the most prepared and the least stressed as possible.

What to Do During the Week Leading Up to an Exam

You need to start the study process at least 5 to 10 days before an exam. As much as we want to control the learning process and make it happen fast, we can’t do that because our brains don’t work that way. 

Learning new information requires time and repetition because we’re making changes at the neurological level that we cannot rush. I know that’s inconvenient, but the sooner you accept this reality, the sooner you’ll be able to study better with less stress.

So, about 5 to 10 days before your exam, you should be using spaced repetition and active recall study strategies. This post is about what to do the night before an exam, so I won’t cover active recall or spaced repetition in detail here, but the two resources listed below explain everything you need to know.

Hint: Active recall and spaced repetition are essential for learning. If you’re using study methods that are not based on active recall, you are not studying.

  1. How to use active recall to study
  2. How to use spaced repetition to study
  3. Examples of active recall study methods (podcast episode)
  4. How to learn things (podcast episode)

The reason I start this blog post by emphasizing active recall and spaced repetition is that using those study methods on the days leading up to your test puts you in the best possible position the night before your exam.

What to Do the Night Before an Exam

Assuming you have adequately prepared for your exam starting at least five days before the test, there are a few finishing touches and strategies you can use the night before an exam that can set you up for success the following day.

1. Start Early in the Evening

Starting your final review early in the evening, rather than late at night, ensures that you’ll be less stressed out and frantic before you fall asleep. It also guarantees that you’ll give yourself enough time to start and finish your final study session to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

A strategy for figuring out what time to start your final review the night before an exam is to use the process of reverse engineering. Here’s how:

  1. Write down the time you want to go to bed.
  2. Working backward from your ideal bedtime, subtract the time it takes you to get ready for bed, including brushing your teeth, showering, changing your clothes, and whatever else you do to wind down.
  3. Subtract 20 minutes from that number to give you time to prepare for the morning. I talk more about this in tip 7.
  4. Look at the final time. This is when you need to be done studying.
  5. Continuing to work backward, subtract the amount of time you plan to study for. I suggest anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. Remember, what you’re doing the night before an exam is not learning new information; you’re simply reviewing what you’ve already studied. If you think you need more than 90 minutes, then you haven’t adequately prepared beforehand.
  6. The time that you have arrived at, after doing the above subtractions, is the absolute latest you should start studying. You may need to take it a few steps further and subtract time for dinner and any other obligations you have in the evening.
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How to reverse engineer your study sessions the night before an exam

2. Split Your Study Sessions in Half

After using reverse engineering in the step above to figure out the latest you should start your evening review session, I suggest you split your study session in half. Let me explain:

To tap into the power of spaced repetition one last time, do two smaller review sessions instead of one. Spend some time reviewing your content, then move on to something else (a total break or homework for another subject), and then return to the original material or study session number two.

Breaking a longer study session in half with a break in the middle increases retention and learning. For example, if you plan to review for 90 minutes, I suggest doing two 45-minute study sessions with a break in the middle.

Or if you plan to review for 60 minutes, do two 30-minute sessions with a break in the middle. If you choose this strategy, which I suggest you do, factor it into how you reverse engineer what time you will start your review sessions (in tip 1).

3. Test Yourself Under Real Conditions

A highly effective study strategy for the night before an exam is to test yourself under conditions similar to the real exam. This means using active recall methods one more time.

Think about it: Tomorrow’s exam will ask you questions and you will not have the answers in front of you. The only way that you’ll know for sure if you’re fully prepared for the test is to ask yourself questions and not have the answers in front of you. This is the nature of active recall.

How do we do this? Make your own quizzes, use flashcards, take practice tests, use the blurting method, try mind mapping, and fill in blank diagrams.

4. Make a Reference Sheet to Review in the Morning

A helpful tip for the night before an exam is to create a reference sheet on a single sheet of paper or an index card. Create this reference sheet as you review the material the evening before your test. Then review the reference sheet the morning of your test, perhaps over breakfast.

This is a great way to spend your time the night before an exam because making a reference sheet like this forces you to consolidate large concepts into something that would fit in a small amount of space, such as an index card. If you’re unable to distill larger concepts into bite-size explanations, then you don’t know the material well enough. And this is important feedback for you to know before you take your test!

5. Avoid Caffeine Past 3 PM

Caffeine stays in our body longer than we think it does. I understand that sometimes we consume caffeine (or other energy drinks) to give ourselves enough energy to stay awake and study, but we have to be careful about our cut-off point. As a general rule of thumb, stop consuming caffeine at least eight hours before your intended bedtime. So if you plan to go to bed at 11 pm, have your last cup of coffee before 3 PM.

6. Go to Bed at a Reasonable Hour

Your brain needs to go through the sleep cycle to process what it’s learning. Sleep is when our brains solidify memories and synthesize new information with pre-existing information.

What does this mean? It means that you will do better on your test (because you can remember more material) if go to bed on time instead of staying up an extra hour to study.

7. Prepare for the Next Morning

The morning of an exam is stressful, as you’re likely worried about your test performance. If there are any other stress points in the morning, such as trying to find your clothes or figuring out what to eat for breakfast, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

It’s important that you understand how negatively anxiety can impact your test performance, and so the calmer your morning before the test, the better off you’ll be.

One way to create a calm morning is to prepare a few things the night before. The more you can prepare and the more decisions you can make the night before an exam, the better your cognitive function will be for your exam.

Here are a few ideas of what to prepare the night before an exam:

  • Pick out your clothes
  • Get your breakfast ready
  • Pack your bag
  • Pack your lunch
  • Pack your car with things you need if you’ll be driving anywhere

8. Leave a Notebook Next to Your Bed

Our brains have the obnoxious little habit of reminding us of things that are stressful while we’re trying to fall asleep. Preparing for an exam can be stressful, and so it’s not uncommon for thoughts, ideas, and worries to keep you awake the night before an exam.

A strategy I teach my students is to leave a notebook next to their bed. As thoughts, ideas and worries occur, quickly write them down. If we don’t write them down, our brain goes into overdrive trying to help us not forget them. (This is a lovely gesture of our brain, but not when we’re trying to sleep.) Writing down these thoughts, ideas and worries allows our brain to let them go, which enables us to sleep.

The post What to Do the Night Before an Exam appeared first on SchoolHabits.

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