Omar Shehata

I can't study the night of the exam

From Omar's notebook.

I used to struggle with this a lot in high school: it's the night of the exam, there's various cheat sheets and practice tests all the hard working students are doing, but I just can't bring myself to do it.

Was I just lazy? No, I worked pretty hard on all these things, just not on that night.

Was it arrogance? I think partially. I was ready. I knew I was. I had practiced the material all year. The only thing prepping the night before could do was shake my confidence about some minor details, which probably wouldn't come up in the exam anyway. It made me feel even more confident doing something fun and unrelated the night before, while everyone else was studying.

I believed going in confident would help me perform much better than anything I could learn the night before.

I remember going around telling people that I never studied the night before as a matter of principle. That I believed in fact that any exam prep was "cheating". That even being told that were was going to be an exam, let alone what material was going to be covered on it, could itself be considering cheating.

How is exam prep "cheating"?

I was being intentionally incendiary because that's just who I was in high school, but I do genuinely believe this. It's not that controversial of an opinion. I think it's pretty widely accepted in pedagogy that cramming for an exam only to forget everything later is not a great way to learn. Frequent quizzes don't just help you assess progress better, they encourage doing the work more frequently, which leads to more progress in itself.

Prepping for an exam is "cheating", or gaming the test, if you're not actually improving the skills the exam is trying to assess. The ideal test is one where you do great if you are great at the subject. The ideal test requires no prep; it just requires you spend time improving your skills in the subject.

It's like trying to measure someone's blood sugar level when they intentionally want to inflate their numbers so they keeping eating a cookie right before you test them. What you're measuring becomes wildly different from what the real value is.

To be clear, I don't blame the student who spends a lot of time doing test-prep at the expense of deeper learning. The fault lies with the test and its incentives.

It does feel unfair when you know you're good at the thing, like building software, but the test deems you unfit just because you didn't prep for it, like practicing algorithm-style questions.

What I choose to do the night of the test

The smart thing to do is just bite the bullet and prep. Yes Omar, it would be wonderful if you could just learn the material and not think about how you're going to be tested. But you're just putting yourself at a disadvantage then.

But even knowing that, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Perhaps because I wanted so badly to live in a world where test prep was not needed that I would just pretend it wasn't.

What I've always chosen to do instead is use that time to try something new. Do something ambitious and worthwhile that makes me feel like an expert. On the night of my biology GCSE exam, I grabbed the textbook and just starting reading. Our teachers told us that the textbook was "90% fluff" and not to bother with it, and to only read the notes they prepared, and that's what everyone did.

This was the night I learned about the fascinating inner workings of how our brains interpret colors, and how you can trick your brain into interpreting pressure signals as light (basically by rubbing your eyes). This was a big part in the inspiration to my Unravling the JPEG article which is the most popular article I've written to date.

This seems to work well for me, in the long run. Every time I've chosen to do something wacky like this when I was supposed to be doing the more responsible prep has been a worthwhile investment. And it was great in the short-term too. Otherwise I just feel a lot of anxiety as I reach the point of diminishing returns with prep and that's not helping anybody.

So I think I'll keep doing this.

What about you?

I'm really curious if others feel strongly about this, or if you have your own night-before-the-big-test rituals you'd like to share!