Brain Steroids in the Classroom

Today in my Social Problems class I let students choose a topic for me to discuss. They chose drug abuse. Since drug abuse is not really an area I study, I was at a loss for a good hook that could get me interested in the topic. I found that hook when I caught the 60 minutes episode that focuses on the prevalent abuse of Adderall on college campuses. Adderall, a drug that went to market in 1996 for ADD, has been labeled “brain steroids” because, for those without the diagnosis it can increase focus and decrease fatigue. One professor’s study of students at the University of Kentucky estimated that 50% of juniors and seniors have tried the drug without a prescription, making it the most popular drug on campus outside of alcohol.

Its no news that college students use and abuse drugs. But what is striking about this use is that it’s mostly for work, rather than for recreation. Students use it to focus on their studying – flying high as kites for days on end though final exams. Psychological addiction sets in as their scores sore and they fail to believe that they can achieve without the drug. They worry that without it, they are missing a competitive advantage.

I am concerned about the physiological and psychological effects of Adderall abuse because I saw first hand how the drug affected a close friend. It alienated him from others who were not operating at the same speed. Over time it wreaked havoc on his body, which became frail and dull. Once he kicked the habit, he was plunged into a deep depression. Its not worth all this to get a few points on an exam, so why has Adderall abuse become so pervasive?

Partly, ADD drugs have become more available. My students’ generation grew up with them. But I think there’s more to it than this. If I take a long view, imagining our society in this particular historical moment, I think Adderall abuse is a red flag for a deeper crisis in higher education and its relationship to work opportunities. More students are attending college – its has become nearly a necessity across industries. At the same time, the potential employment rewards have been diminishing (even before the economic crisis). Students (and the parents who push them) know there are fewer seats at the middle class table. The pressure is on to snag a chair, even if it means pumping yourself with drugs to out-sprint hordes of equally well-qualified contenders.

At the end of each lecture, I try to offer students some ideas about solutions or social actions that could address the problem. Today, I focused on what students and universities can do in terms of acknowledging the problem, changing the campus culture, and holding students accountable. It got me thinking about what faculty and graduate instructors can do to alleviate the pressure without compromising learning goals or handling students with kid gloves. Here are a couple of my ideas:

  • Outline clear grading criteria prior to assigning work
  • Offer several smaller assignments in addition to or instead of major exams or final papers/projects
  • Stage major paper and project assignments over the course of the semester
  • Give consistent feedback throughout the semester

I struggle to meet these ideals as I try to balance teaching and research. I’m also stumped on how to minimize the stress of midterms and finals in large lecture courses, where smaller, less standardized, assignments may not be feasible. I’d be interested to hear suggestions from others in the comments.

1 Comment

  1. Just going through your ideas, they are all really helpful. I know as the Next Great Generation we hate to be put into labels/boxes but at times sometimes those stereotypes fit. For example, I know I need constant feedback. So if I send an email, I need someone to reply, or else I go crazy. Now becoming a “real adult” I know that sometimes life will get in the way of that immediate reply, but none-the-less I always enjoy that personal connection.
    Another aspect of the college life I wish I’d taken an opportunity to explore is making that personal connection with professors I enjoy. Again, having a balanced real life in the way hinders, but there’s also the academic pressure as well. I don’t want to seem like I’m “brown-nosing” in any way. I really want to learn.


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