Using Stimulants Before Exams Can Count as Cheating

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Using Adderall and other prescription drugs as a way to enhance academic performance equals “cheating,” according to a new policy at Duke University. In the past, using pharmaceuticals was considered only a violation of the university’s policy against drug use.

Stephen Bryan, the associate dean of students at Duke University, said the new measure was largely symbolic because it would be too hard for officials to enforce.

“We certainly do not plan to drug test every student before an exam,” he said. “The hope is that students will see that the university has taken a stance, see that drug use is considered cheating, and will think twice before doing it.”

The use of stimulants among students is at an all-time high, not just at Duke University, but at colleges all over the United States, according to Dr. Sean McCabe, a professor specializing in prescription drug abuse at the University of Michigan. According to various surveys taken between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of students using prescription drugs off-label has increased from about 5% to nearly 10%. One problem with stimulant abuse on campus is that many professors also use these drugs.

A typical college student abusing prescription stimulants is white, a member of a fraternity or sorority, has below average grades, and participates in other risky behaviors.

Dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate are among the most frequently abused stimulants, partly because they are the most available. Sold under the brand names of Adderall, Adderall XR, Dextrostat, Dexedrine, Ritalin, Concerta, Methylin and Focalin, these drugs are commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Disorder/Hyperactivity.

Since 1990, the number of such prescriptions has risen by 500%. According to the National Institute of Health, about 7% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, along with between 3% and 4% of adults. Adults use about 33% of the medications prescribed for ADHD. One study found that half the college students with a prescription for a stimulant drug had been offered money for their pills.

The irony is that most academic research shows that using stimulant drugs to enhance academic performance is ineffective. In a set of articles published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, researchers Elizabeth Smith and Martha Farah of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania found that students who had low cognitive performance were more likely to show improvements, indicating that the drugs correct deficits but do not enhance performance.

Abuse of ADHD medications had little or no effect on working memory, and although they improved rote learning, they did not help people understand complex information. Since college examinations usually test the ability to understand complex ideas, ADHD medications are unlikely to help performance on exams.

Dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate are not without side effects. They increase blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and decrease sleep and appetite, which can lead to malnutrition and its consequences. People who take them without medical supervision can experience cardiovascular complications or strokes, especially if they take them in high doses or repeatedly. These drugs are also addictive.

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