Caffeine keeps you awake so it sounds perfect as an exam revision aid– right? Well – yes and no. Caffeine is a popular study and exam-prep substance and when used properly, it can aid performance. Indeed, a study by John Wiley and Sons in Human Psychopharmacology stated caffeine put one at ‘an advantage’. However, loading up on caffeine isn’t a substitute for proper preparation, rest and hydration. In addition to which, it’s more than possible to have too much of a good thing; drinking too many cups of coffee, for instance, may turn you into a shaky, restless mess in no shape to sit an exam.
Clearly, caffeine is found in coffee, but tea, cola and chocolate are other sources. In addition, there are loads of energy drinks and pills on the market that are packed with caffeine and are specifically targeted at students and/or workers who need to stay alert. Caffeine is even contained in some common painkillers.
How does it work?
Caffeine is a bitter alkaloid, which acts as a psychoactive stimulant on the brain. While there is some evidence that points to its ability to improve concentration and memory, there is also data showing that caffeine can have a damaging effect on short-term memory processes. Caffeine seems to have the most positive impact on working and long-term memory with it being most effective for people between the ages of 26-64.
Caffeine has many benefits
Caffeine is a popular study aid and with good reason. It’s well known that caffeine helps with concentration; a satisfying and delicious cup of coffee acts as the main ‘smart drug’ by students worldwide. Caffeine is also a reliable standby for many workers to maintain focus and increase productivity during shifts.
People usually take caffeine on board just before they need a mental energy boost. The effects kick in quickly – generally within 10-45 minutes – after which it gets easier to concentrate on mental tasks. The effects last for different periods of time, depending on the amount consumed, body weight, tolerance etc.
In addition to the study period in the lead up to exams, some people use caffeine actually during examinations as a way of bolstering performance. Caffeine used this way can indeed help you complete tasks with greater focus and accuracy.
But there are downsides too
High, sustained usage can result in adverse side effects – indeed, the stimulant properties in caffeine result in alterations in our brain chemistry. Caffeine can get quite addictive and regular users to find they get less significant physiological impacts over time even if they ingest consistent dosages.
So while moderate caffeine consumption can help improve concentration levels during exam preparation, overdoing it can backfire and even lead to serious health problems like anxiety, heart palpitations and – in some cases – even memory loss (exactly what you don’t need in the run-up to an exam).
Moderation is key
Caffeine is a stimulant, which affects both brain and body – and while it’s not heavily regulated it’s worth knowing that it’s not 100% safe. When used in moderation, caffeine can help maintain a busy, modern lifestyle, but it’s important to know when to stop. Try to stick to 3-4 cups of coffee or tea per day (or the equivalent). Make sure you check the labels of products containing especially high concentrations of caffeine, like energy drinks.
Avoid caffeine after studying when your brain needs time to switch off and recharge. Instead, try drinking herbal tea, taking some gentle exercise or having a short nap.
So it’s clear that caffeine can play a valuable role in helping you prepare for your exams. The main thing is to make sure you don’t overdo it in the mistaken belief that it’s the answer to everything. Bottom line – caffeine can be a great aid during both revision and test time, but it can never take the place of thorough preparation and getting plenty of shut-eye.