Nothing is worse than a night exam. Many classes, especially large lectures in STEM fields, schedule exams late in the evening. At their worst, these exams can span from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. They may seem to be a necessary evil, since the regular class time is often not long enough for an exam, and the evening is often the only block of time when most students have a few hours free. But at the end of a long, arduous day, these exams end up doing more harm than good. Brown professors should therefore do their best to avoid scheduling night exams.
To some students, night exams, in theory at least, might sound like a sweet set-up. They have the whole day to study for the test — assuming they have no other classes, extracurriculars or sports practices to attend — and this extra time ensures that they can be as prepared as possible once the sun sets. It’s also easy to see how exams at this hour of the night can encourage students to get more sleep. Most of them are probably less inclined to trade sleep for study time if their test the next day is in the evening rather than bright and early in the morning.
But these students may not actually realize how bad night exams really are. Taking tests so late in the day negatively affects performance on the test. A study conducted on students at Danish public schools found that for every hour later in the day, standardized test scores decreased by 0.9 percent of a standard deviation. The researchers concluded that, because their mental fatigue grows over the course of a day, students perform worse on exams when they are held later in the day.
Brown students are also often mentally fatigued by the end of the day because they fill their schedules with tons of classes. In addition, students often have to accommodate practices and work shifts late into the evening. As a result, when students have to take exams at the end of the night, this mental fatigue can stunt their performance and produce lower test scores.
The steps to get rid of night exams aren’t easy; those pesky logistical issues limit viable solutions. But one solution is to schedule particularly long exams in the morning before classes begin. This could get the most mentally taxing event of any college student’s day — a midterm, or other long exam — out of the way earlier. Often in the morning, moreover, students’ problem solving minds are at their peak capacity, before they are impaired by mental fatigue. For morning exams to work, they would have to begin at 7:00 a.m. at the latest, since the earliest classes are at 8:30 a.m. every day except for Friday. While some students might groan about having to wake up early, they should realize that they will earn higher grades on the exam the earlier they take it.
Another solution is for professors simply to make their exams short enough to fit a regular class time. This would be much easier for everyone, since students who are busy during the evenings would not have to go through the trouble of scheduling make-up exams.
Having a few extra hours during the day to study for exams may seem appealing at first, but students bear the real cost of night exams when they leave the exam room physically drained and doubtful of their performance. They bear another cost of late night exams when they have to see their scores posted on Canvas. To give students more of a fighting chance to excel on their exams and to test their brains when they are the least mentally fatigued, exams should not be held at night.
Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.