Drinking Doesn't Decimate Test Scores

ResearchBlogging.orgi-e1414796125a14a6d46359b23bb484dc-regular-drinking.jpgThe latest study from Boston University has college students everywhere popping open a brewski and saying "I told you so." Researchers found that getting drunk the night before a test had no effect on the student's performance, although it left them feeling rotten on test day.

What college student hasn't chosen to blow off last minute studying in favor of a few drinks? Binge drinking is common on U.S. campuses, and the effects of such behavior on the student's performance are poorly understood. There is thought to be a general negative connection between the two, but while some studies have linked drinking habits to marginal grades, others have found that these correlations disappear when corrected for the students pre-drinking performance level.

With the larger connections tenuous, Jonathan Howland and his colleagues decided to focus on more direct effects: does drinking the night before a test lead to lower grades? To determine how much a hangover affects student's academic performance, researchers from the Youth Alcohol Prevention Center at Boston University School of Public Health took 196 of-age college students from the greater Boston area and enlisted them in a randomized cross-over trial, which had them drink either a placebo or enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol well above the legal limit (0.12 g%). They then gave each student a barrage of tests the next day, including a Graduate Record Examination© (GRE) , a quiz on material they'd learned the day before, the Neurobehavioral Evaluation System and the Psychomotor Vigilance Test to measure neurocognitive performance, and the Profile of Mood States as well as surveys to determine the subject's mood.

They found that, to no surprise to anyone, the students who had drank the night before felt downright crummy the next day. 70% of them reported some kind of hangover, and their mood was significantly worse both early in the morning and later on in the day. The drinkers also performed worse on some of the neurocognitive function tests.

However, despite thinking they did worse, what didn't suffer was the students' academic performance; there was no difference in GRE scores or their quiz results, suggesting neither their long-term knowledge or short-term learning suffered from their deviant evening. So while they felt like crap, the binge-drinking students were still able to pull though and do as well academically as their sober peers.

Most of the previous research in this field has focused on correlations, and not directly measured how alcohol and academic performance interact. This is the first study to experimentally test the age-old assumptions that alcohol is detrimental to college students.

Now, these data don't mean that you should go out partying and expect smooth sailing - the researchers didn't look at long-term effects of drinking nor did they look at how excessive doses of alcohol, like those that lead to honoring the porcelain throne for a few hours (we've all given homage at some point in our lives), affect performance. However, they do suggest that you won't be totally screwed if you end up having a couple too many the night before midterms. Not that I suggest finding this out the hard way...

Howland, J., Rohsenow, D., Greece, J., Littlefield, C., Almeida, A., Heeren, T., Winter, M., Bliss, C., Hunt, S., & Hermos, J. (2010). The effects of binge drinking on college students' next-day academic test-taking performance and mood state Addiction, 105 (4), 655-665 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02880.x

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I think that if you prepared well enough ahead of time that you can afford to get blitzed before a test, you are much more likely to actually know the material.

If you are counting on an ineffective, night-before study marathon, you probably may as well go get drunk instead.

The next question to ask is: Does drinking 1-2 hours before a test or exam affect performance?

I know quite a few people that claim to have done better in exams when they were drunk. Never tried it myself.

By Katherine (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

The ethics application for that one must have been interesting...

By antipodean (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

I've been doing this study my whole academic life. I've noticed no difference in exam performance, however I have noticed a significant difference in fun the night prior to the exam. This generally correlates to a more relaxed disposition before writing. Hell, I even drink before exams/committee meetings.