This Is Their Brains on Drugs

by Tina Blue
December 25, 2002

          Well, it's been another frustrating semester of trying to herd cats. 

          At least that's what it feels like sometimes.  Half of the students are bound to lose essential course handouts.  We
this.  So now most of us put all of our course materials on the Web, in addition to passing them out in paper form.  You'd think that would forestall excuses, but of course it doesn't.  They will claim they didn't realize it was on the Web, even if you have announced it in class repeatedly and done everything but have the information broadcast on CNN.

          At Kansas University, the final exam schedule is listed in the semester timetable, which is available both in print and online.  If a student knows when his class regularly meets (a big "if" for some students!), he can easily discover when his final exam is scheduled.  And since exams for almost all classes are given in their regular classroom, that means the time and place for any exam is easy to figure out.

          But just to make sure no one gets confused, I post my final exam schedule in three places on Blackboard, on the special website I maintain for my students in case they can't get onto Blackboard on any given day, and on the door to my office.  I also e-mail a copy of the exam schedule to every student in all my classes--three times over the last three weeks of class!

          And of course the day after my last scheduled exam each semester, I will receive several panicky e-mails from students who have missed their exam because they didn't know when or where it was being held.  I admit that I do get exasperated that so many students e-mail me to ask when and where their final is, after I have plastered that information all over the place and repeatedly e-mailed it to them as well.  But I get even more annoyed with the ones who, somehow having missed all those efforts at communication, don't even think to ask when and where the final is until they have already managed to miss it.

          But in our discussions of why a lot of students seem less focused and in so many ways less competent and responsible than students we remember from, say, twenty years ago, we sometimes overlook a significant factor: the impact of heavy drug and alcohol use.

          Drinking is so widespread and so heavy among undergraduates these days that for partying purposes, many of them think of Thursday evening as the beginning of the weekend.  When I walk into my classes on Friday morning, I can actually smell the beer so many of them were sucking down Thursday night.  We know a lot of our students drink heavily on weekends, and that many do so even during the week.  Why should we be surprised that so many of them can't make it to their morning classes, or that when they do, they can't stay awake.

          And what about the effect alcohol has on mental acuity?  I am not a drinker myself, but for the past year I have, on my doctor's recommendation, been drinking 4 ounces of wine per day to control high blood pressure.  This "medicine" has helped to lower my blood pressure, which is why I continue to drink my daily 4 ounces.  But the fact is, I can't drink all 4 ounces in one sitting, because I always need my brain.  I need to be awake, and I need to be all there.  If I drink more than 1 or 2 ounces of wine at a time, I feel drowsy and slow-witted.  My mind is just not fully functional, even with a single 4-ounce glass of wine.

          Now, I assume that chronic sleep-deprivation is one reason why even a small amount of alcohol makes me sleepy.  But I know that many--probably most--undergraduates are also chronically sleep-deprived, whether it's from studying and working too much or from partying and playing video games all night.  I am quite sure that if they are drinking--and many of them are drinking, and quite a lot--then they are not functioning at the top of their game mentally.  How could this not affect their ability to read difficult textbooks or to write coherent essays?

          And what about drugs?  For many of our students, marijuana, like alcohol, is a regular habit.  A lot of them smoke weed on weekends, and many use it during the week as well.  Do I need to tell you that marijuana pretty much destroys short-term memory?  How effectively can someone study if he can't remember what he read five seconds ago?

          Sure, all that drinking and drugging takes time away from actually studying and completing assignments.  And, sure, it also increases students' tendency to cut class, especially morning classes.  But perhaps even more important, it has an effect on a student's intellectual functioning.  How can we expect them to master difficult subject matter and complex skills when their brains are scrambled by drugs and alcohol?

          When we get really, really frustrated with our college students for not being able to follow third-grade level instructions, we should consider how many of them are (let's be blunt here) suffering from drug and alcohol induced idiocy.

          This is their brains on drugs.

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