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Smith: Evening exams induce night terrors

Leanna Smith, Columnist

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Get a good night’s sleep. Don’t cram the night before. These seem to be the time-tested pearls of wisdom for any test taker, spanning all academic fields. However, these tips are geared toward tests taken in the morning or during the day.

What if your test is at night? The eight hours you got last night seem almost inconsequential after a day packed with classes, labs, work-study jobs and meetings. The late-night cramming you avoided means nothing in the face of nervously flipping through flashcards during a quick dinner an hour before the exam.

Night tests are a common practice at Northwestern and many other colleges. From a practical standpoint, it is easy to see the reasoning behind scheduling exams this way. For a professor who teaches two or more sections of a class, giving a common exam at night allows all students to take the same test at one time. This levels the playing field and ideally minimizes cheating between an earlier and later section. It also ensures that professors can lecture during the class period that would have otherwise been for a test, which is useful in an already tight, 10-week quarter.

However, night testing has far more drawbacks than advantages. It does not seem to be conducive to students doing their best on test day and beyond.

Some classes that give exams at night let students know before registration so that they can schedule other classes and commitments accordingly. Students in the organic chemistry/biology sequence take bio quizzes Wednesday nights and orgo midterms on three Thursday nights of the quarter.

Though three nights of a quarter may seem insignificant, there are only nine Thursdays of class during the entire quarter. This schedule restricts students from taking 6-9 p.m. classes two out of the four days of the week they are offered and essentially takes the possibility of participating in an extracurricular activity on Wednesdays and Thursdays off the table. It also makes students reluctant to schedule labs and other classes that would end just prior to the quizzes or midterms to allow for a quick study break and a little downtime before a rigorous exam. In turn, it is more difficult to map out a schedule for the quarter and ends up severely limiting course options. The quarter system was designed for students to be able to maximize their breadth of coursework, but a heavy load of night tests accomplishes just the opposite.

Perhaps more important than the scheduling conflict is that night exams do not seem to set students up for optimal performance. Having a test at night allows anxiety to build all day long. Although there is pressure to perform during a test at any time of day, an exam scheduled for 7 p.m. forces students go through the entire day with pre-test jitters. Studies have shown that mounting levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, has negative effects on cognitive function. It can induce problems in memorization and concentration and has been known to lead to indecisiveness. None of these outcomes are welcome during a test.

Tiffany Herlands, a psychologist and assistant psychiatry professor at Columbia University, believes the combination of building anxiety and fatigue from a long day may lead students to rely more on stimulants like coffee, energy drinks and performance-enhancing drugs like Adderall. She feels this dependence on stimulants is more likely in the case of a night exam rather than one given during the day. Of course, coffee can be helpful as a pick-me-up, but heavily relying on boosts from energy drinks and prescription drugs is not healthy and also potentially dangerous.

The quarter system is fast-paced, class time is at a premium and students should be set up to succeed as much as possible. Surely the extra two or three days of class freed up by a night exam could be beneficial but not at the expense of academic performance and well-being.

Leanna Smith is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to