Sunday, April 30, 2006

No Point Losing Sleep over Exams

During exam time, a strong pressure exists for students to cut back on sleep, exercise, and nutrition in order to devote more time to study.  The reality, however, is that studying at the expense of such things is subject to the law of diminishing returns; it does more harm than good.

In the years I have been teaching, including those in which I was a high school teacher, I have found that my preparing for class in the wee hours of the night seldom produces a high quality class session the following day.  I find that, while my lesson plan is detailed as can be and completely logical in each progression of thought or activity, I cannot seem to execute the plan with the vigor or flexibility required to make it work properly. 

Rather, I find that I cannot keep the steps clearly in mind as I try to move through the plan, I cannot think quickly enough to respond effectively to students' insightful questions or extrapolations, and I cannot adequately assess my students' areas of confusion.  All my energy is focused on executing this perfect plan, and I am too fatigued to adjust effectively when necessary, so I end up unable to execute the plan after all.

The plan becomes the enemy of the lesson, primarily because I am too tired to let the point of the lesson drive the plan.  I just cannot think fast enough and hold the complexity in my head completely enough to do the material justice.  I find myself staring at the plan from somewhere far afield of the point of the class session, wondering how the heck I ended up so off course.  My students mostly just end up staring.

As a result, over the years my practice has become to schedule preparation to avoid late night scrambles, making room for the daily fires that often wreck schedules that have no room for slippage.  I have accepted the fact that at some point preparation becomes self-defeating as it cuts into rest.  I have repeatedly found that a good night's sleep will allow the success of a somewhat incomplete lesson plan while fatigue will generally sabotage a more complete plan.

I suspect our students need to learn that same principle as they prepare for tests.  Studying into the wee hours for a test the next morning is probably worse than stopping short of the goal and simply being rested for the exam.  A rested, alert mind is more likely to fill in the gaps than is an exhausted, slow-moving mind which is trying to remember all that was crammed into it at 3:00 a.m.

Perhaps the point is that if one is not fully prepared at 11:00 p.m., one will likely not be any more prepared at 3:00 a.m.  First, what is absorbed from 11:00 to 3:00 probably will not stick particularly well; and, second, the fatigue created in those hours will interfere with applying even those concepts that have been absorbed, including those that were mastered in the days and weeks leading up to the exam. 

Law school exams demand complex thinking that can respond quickly to difficult combinations of issues; that sort of brain work requires energy and mental agility, two things fatigue impedes.  Being unable to sleep the night before an exam is not fatal, but it is not helpful either; so there is no point creating that situation on purpose.

Let's encourage our students to protect the quality of their thinking by scheduling rest, exercise, and good nutrition during their exam weeks.  If they are behind on their flow charting or on internalizing material, they probably cannot effectively close those gaps in the middle of the night.  At this point hard, steady work throughout the day combined with a rested, energetic mind on each exam day is the best hope. 

An exam is one of those things you just shouldn't lose sleep over. (dbw)

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