It’s well-documented that students who binge drink tend to have lower grade point averages and focus less on academics than students who don’t. It might follow, then, that binge drinking is also associated with lower levels of critical thinking.
The authors of a new paper addressing this question did indeed find that many students who binge drank over their four years in college had “significantly lower” critical thinking skills upon graduating than did those who didn’t binge drink. But that was true only for students who enrolled with already comparatively low critical thinking ability.
"Those are the students that we really want to gain from college, and if binge drinking gets in the way of that, then I think that creates a real problem,” said Teniell L. Trolian, a paper co-author and doctoral student in higher education and student affairs at the University of Iowa. “That’s where the real effect is. So I think prevention educators and other administrators on campus who are trying to assist students to be academically successful and attain all of the cognitive outcomes that we expect of college -- I think that would be a great place to focus their efforts.”
Trolian and her co-authors, the Iowa education professors Ernest T. Pascarella and Brian P. An, are presenting their paper at this week’s annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, in St. Louis. They sought to examine the link between binge drinking and critical thinking because although the latter is now considered one of the most important outcomes  of higher education, it hadn’t been the subject of such research.
Their sample includes more than 4,100 students who attended college from 2006-10 at one of 17 institutions: 11 liberal arts colleges, three research universities and three regional universities. (The data are drawn from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, whose participants also take the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency Critical Thinking Test, which measures skills in clarifying, analyzing, evaluating and extending arguments.)
Binge drinking is defined as five drinks in a sitting for males and four for females. About 80 percent of college students drink and about half of those students binge drink, according to figures from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
But, the study says, “Students with relatively strong critical thinking skills at entrance to college appeared to be essentially immune to the negative influence of collegiate binge drinking.”
However, there was one exception: among students who binge drank twice weekly (as opposed to once or more than three times), there was no significant difference in critical thinking outcomes for drinkers vs. non-drinkers.
The biggest predictors of college binge drinking were binge drinking in high school and pre-college academic motivation.
The implications of the findings extend beyond the individual students’ academic outcomes, said Scott Lewis, partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. Alcohol or drug use is almost always involved in rape and non-sexual assault cases on campus, Lewis noted, and students will have a harder time binging Thursday through Sunday once they’re in the work place.
“We know that when they’re drunk they’re making less good decisions, but you can’t do that for four years and think it’s not going to have an impact on you developmentally,” Lewis said, adding that coping and conflict resolution skills are not helped by heavy alcohol use, either. “For prevention education, it stresses the importance of making sure students understand more clearly the definitions of consent and force and incapacity in terms of sexual misconduct, as well as making students even more aware of how to be appropriate interveners.”
But Lewis questioned the feasibility of targeting first-year students whose critical thinking is substandard.
“I don’t know how we would identify that specific group short of some sort of testing,” he said. “I think if you just focus on the whole, that’d be smarter.”