To Drink or to Study?

We know how students spend their time, but how do their choices affect their academic success?
March 30, 2011

BALTIMORE -- Alongside time spent studying outside of class, alcohol consumption is the most significant predictor of a student's grade point average. It has more impact than working, watching television, online social networking -- even attending class.

Nobody will be surprised to hear that students are drinking, but because research into how students spend their time often stops short of examining the relationships between extracurricular pastimes and academic outcomes, a study presented Tuesday here at the American College Personnel Association's annual convention may provide increased leverage in steering new students toward academic success.

Todd Wyatt, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University and director of research at Outside the Classroom, a company that addresses student public health issues like alcohol and substance use, wanted to pick up where academic journals sometimes leave off. "I felt that because the research stops at a certain point, there's this intense speculation" about how spare time affects academic performance.

For instance, one need not look far to find an academic who blames the distractions of the Internet or online social networking sites like Facebook for the fact that today's students spend less time than ever studying outside the classroom. But in reality, Wyatt found, that kind of technology -- besides taking up less time in the average student's week than class, working, studying and watching television -- does not appear to significantly affect academic outcomes.

In his study, which surveyed about 13,900 incoming freshmen at 167 colleges and universities who were also taking the AlcoholEDU freshman survey, Wyatt did find some variation in how students' pastimes affect different individuals. For one thing, he found that students who drink and also volunteer or participate in other activities are less likely than their peers who drink and don't engage in such activities to experience negative consequences from drinking, such as performing poorly on assignments, missing class or work, or hurting their friends or themselves. "They're not drinking less, they're just drinking smarter," Wyatt said.

And what about the students at elite colleges, known for their "work hard, party hard" ethos, who may use substances but make great grades while doing so? Turns out, they're not immune. "I was able to exactly replicate the previous finding with the work-hard, play-hard students," Wyatt said. "Although their grades are inflated to the point where they look super-smart ... you have to realize that they're probably still not recognizing their full potential."

That assertion caused some grief for Wyatt when he took it to a few Ivy League colleges (which he declined to identify). Officials at two of them blew him off, he said, saying that their students still get better grades than anyone else, so who cares?

Other colleges cannot even attempt to make that argument. There has been a decades-long decline in how much students study, Wyatt showed. In the 1960s, college students spent 24 hours a week studying. As of 2005, that number had dropped to 11. There are potential positive implications to students studying less: they're more socially competent, spending more time on leisure and sports, and participating in dynamic learning methods like group work.

But there are negative consequences, too: increased substance use, decreased academic engagement, and decreased professional preparedness. (Wyatt recalled his students in a developmental psychology class, who included text jargon and emoticons in their reflection papers.) "One of the main reasons why students aren't spending as much time studying is they don't know how to study," Wyatt said. "They don't know how to study efficiently."

To that end, Wyatt said, the most important thing to take away from his research is the importance of effective tutoring. "Although tutoring has been proven time and time again," he said, "it's a really hard nut to crack, simply because students resist it almost like it's a sickness. They see it almost as a punishment."

Some colleges are urging students to make tutoring appointments rather than agreeing to visit the lab during open hours. One college this year added an extra resident assistant on each floor of its freshman dorms, plus one "floater RA" per building who visits every room every night to talk with students about their studies. In this way, the RA forms a relationship with the resident and acts as an informal tutor/supervisor to students who might not otherwise seek help. The college, which Wyatt declined to identify because it plans to publish its own study on the experiment, has seen a decline in emergency room visits, campus vandalism, alcohol violations and sexual assault.

Mark Gehrke, a student at Boise State University, said he started a tutoring program at his fraternity this semester, and the average member's grade point average is now 3.5. When other Greek organizations saw the grades of those students, he said, almost all of them added in-house tutors. Gehrke also reinforced the idea that campus activities reduce the negative effects of drinking: when Gehrke got involved in student government, he said, it set his priorities in order, and that newfound passion trickled over into his classroom performance. Offering opportunities for students to socialize on-campus without alcohol -- and doing so with something more compelling than "free pizza" -- is a great way to improve student success, Wyatt said.

Officials at the session also expressed interest in using the study as a warning sign for new students and their parents -- a red flag at freshman orientation to show that, "if you want to succeed," as Wyatt put it, "these are the two main predictors: studying hard and staying off the bottle. That's it."

Some attendees suggested other ideas to improve academic outcomes. "Having worked in housing for 13 years, I'm always thinking about how students spend their time," said Kevin Michael Kerr, general manager of student housing at Greenville Technical College, in South Carolina. At Greenville, starting next year, all students who intend to eventually transfer to a four-year degree program will be required to take a class in which they re-learn how to study and think critically. Halfway through the class's first semester, students are already coming back with better grades.

Wyatt approved. "Educating students to study better is the crux of our entire academic system," he said. "Just being able to say, 'You need to study more' isn't enough. You need to study better."


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