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Binge Drinking Before an Exam, Maybe Not as Bad as You Thought.

binge drinking stats

It’s no secret that in the pursuit of a higher education away from the confines of home students often explore a wilder side of themselves. The weekdays may be all about academics, but on the weekend campuses breakout with parties full of stressed students trying to let loose, if only for one night. This celebration of the weekend usually includes some alcoholic drinking. Four out of every five college students drink alcohol. Strict scheduling of academics and fun can lead students to overindulge, taking in too much of a good thing in a short period of time. In terms of drinking this pattern of behavior is called binge drinking. About half of all college students who drink also show patterns of binge drinking. 54% of binge drinking college students reported blacking out and forgetting what they had done some point in the past year, compared to only 25% for students who did not binge drink. Binge drinking as defined by the National Advisory Council of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is attaining a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 g% or more in about two hours. 0.08 g% is equivalent to about 5 or more drinks for most adults (4 or more for females). A BAC of 0.08 is considered intoxicated and is associated with impairment of speech, balance, reaction time, judgment, and memory. Though, because this impairment is often slight and just beginning to develop, it may be easy to believe you are less impaired than you are. Drinking 5 or more drinks in only 2 hours clearly shows its effects the night of their intake, but what about the next day? Worst, what if a student has academic responsibilities the next day? Even worst, what if the student has an exam the next day!

Howland et al. in a 2010 study researched how binge drinking may affect next day exam scores. Howland and his colleagues wanted to see how a night of binge drinking would affect performance on an academic test the next morning when blood alcohol level had returned to zero. In addition to academic test-taking performance participants were asked by Howland et al. to preform test of cognitive abilities and rate their moods the next day. To test this Howland had people come into a laboratory setting and asked them to watch a half hour video lecture and read an accompanying textbook chapter. Participants knew they would be tested on the material the next day. The participants were then given drinks, however they had no idea if their drink was true alcohol or non-alcoholic beer substitute. The drinking period lasted a little over an hour and participants’ breath was tested until they had reached a specified breath alcohol concentration (0.12 g%) if they were in the alcoholic drink group. The next morning participants were given a multiple choice quiz on the lecture from the night before and two parts (verbal and math) of the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) general multiple choice test (note BAC was now back to 0 when taking tests). After this participants took a battery of cognitive test requiring speed and sustained attention/reaction time. Finally participants rated their mood in the morning and again in the afternoon the day after drinking. A week later the same participants came back in to the lab and the alcoholic and non-alcoholic groups were switched (those given alcohol last week, now given non-alcoholic drink and vice versa) and then took all the same test again to have something to compare their performance from the first week against.

The results of this study were quite surprising. The participants’ academic test-taking abilities were NOT affected in a significant way. Both those who drank alcohol and those who did not did equally well on the multiple choice GRE and quiz on the video lecture/ book chapter. Both groups got moderate scores (80’s range), with the mean correct right out of 30 questions of the lecture/book quiz being 24.70 for alcohol and 24.59 for non-alcoholic participants. A similar pattern was found in the means for the verbal and quantitative GRE sections. However, cognitive abilities were affected. Those in the binge drinking group did worst in the cognitive test requiring attention, quick reaction times, motor functions, and spatial reasoning. These skills are essential for activities like driving. Those in the binge-drinking group also reported a worst mood in the morning and afternoon after the night of drinking. BAC had returned to zero and therefore participants were now sober. Even so, the effects of alcohol still persisted.

Although the binge drinking didn’t affect performance on the multiple choice academic tests given in this study, performance on a more complex test could be affected. This includes essay writing and higher-level problem solving. Also, even if performance on an exam is unaffected, you’ll feel horrible while taking the exam as indicated by the mood rating done in the study. Plus this study isolated the affects of binge drinking on test taking alone, not accounting how drinking may prevent studying for the exam in the first place, disturb sleeping patterns and lower class attendance. Overall, it is clear binge drinking will affect cognitive abilities not only on the night of drinking, but the next day as well as shown by the results of this study. Statistically, students who regularly have more than 5 drinks per occasion have a GPA half a grade lower than other students. No student wants to have his/her grades affected by foolish mistakes they made the night before. To ensure all your cognitive abilities are sharp for test day please hold off on the celebration.


Howland, J., Rohsenow, D. J., Greece, J. A., Littlefield, C. A., Almeida, A., Heeren, T., Winter, M., Bliss, C. A., Hunt, S., & Hermos, J. (2010). The effects of binge drinking on college students’ next-day academic test-taking performance and mood state. Addiction, 105, 655-665. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02880.x

College Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Retrieved April 10, 2013, from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/special-populations-co-occurring-disorders/college-drinking

(1999,January 22). Effects At Specific B.A.C. Levels. B.R.A.D. Be Responsible About Drinking. Retrieved April 10, 2013, from http://www.brad21.org/effects_at_specific_bac.html

(2007, August 15). College and Drinking. Education Portal. Retrieved April 10,2013, from http://education-portal.com/articles/College_and_Drinking.html


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  1. May 7th, 2014 at 09:32 | #1

    I also enjoyed reading this article. I found it very interesting that the intake of alcohol did not affect the academic test taking abilities of the students. I know students who occasionally drink before exams or quizzes and ended up regretting it after getting their grades back. It was demonstrated that the moods of the two groups were different and I believe that the students’ motivation goes along with mood. I would think that if the difficulties of the tests varied, there might be some significant differences between the two groups. I am curious to see the difference between the two groups of participants if the tests were not only multiple choice. Along with Paige, I am curious what the results would be if the groups had not restudied the information for the second test. Lastly, since cognitive abilities were affected, I wonder if the existence of a time limit on the test would impact the results. Due to the results stated above, I would think that the participants would be slower and therefore might not finish the test in time.

  2. December 2nd, 2013 at 19:50 | #2

    I found this post and article to be incredibly fascinating. I do, however, still have some questions. Like some other people have mentioned, everyone reacts differently to alcohol. I wonder how they would account for those effects. How does one ACCURATELY measure hangover level? In my opinion, feeling sick during an exam would absolutely lower my score just because I would be more focused on how terrible I felt than trying to concentrate on the questions. But if these participants chugged water and had no lasting effects of great significance, I think the results would be different. Basically, I suppose I just wonder about the effects of the hangover rather than the effects of the alcohol itself. In any case, this article is interesting and I think it brings a lot of intriguing discussions to the table.

  3. May 16th, 2013 at 22:34 | #3

    I really enjoyed reading this article, although I don’t think I am really surprised that there was was no difference in the test taking abilities between the two conditions. I do not believe that a multiple choice test which examines students’ overall verbal and math abilities is very representative of the average college exam, which requires hours of studying and preparation. I think it would be a worthwhile study to repeat this experiment, but instead to test the students on material which they had just studied for X number of hours. This would more accurately portray a scenario where students are recalling information they just learned, rather than remembering information acquired over years of education.

  4. May 16th, 2013 at 14:09 | #4

    One interesting aspect of the study is that the drinking occurred right after the study phase. I wonder whether delaying the alcohol consumption would create more or less interference due to disruptions in the consolidation process.

  5. May 10th, 2013 at 10:36 | #5

    I found this article to be particularly fascinating and relevant to nearly every college student’s life. As many of my peers have already expressed, I too was surprised by the results. While binge drinking is defined as 4 or 5 drinks, I feel like many college students actually consume far more than this. I wonder whether the students would perform the same if they were tested after a higher bac. As drinking can lead to hangovers with killer headaches, I also wonder whether this can impact the student’s ability to think. Finally, alcohol seriously disrupts sleep patterns, not only from staying up later than normal but by not allowing people to sleep soundly. I think these impacts could effect performance on an exam the next day. Finally, Sam raises an interesting point about muscle memory. I wonder what other effects drinking can have on performances, competitions, etc. As we have learned about state-dependent learning, can these effects be manipulated if a student regularly drinks before exams? Would there performance be better, or worse? Finally, does the same hold true for drugs? Are there similar results for a student who comes off a high and takes an exam?

  6. May 9th, 2013 at 18:50 | #6

    Paige- To address your question, when the study was repeated a week later the participants did study material just as was done the first week, but it was different material than was studied the first week. It would be interesting to see how drinking may effect long term memory for information though.

  7. Paige Pearson
    April 29th, 2013 at 10:59 | #7

    I also enjoyed reading this article and found it particularly relevant in today’s society. It is a little to scary to think how college student’s behavior might change if they knew the results of this study. I’ve heard of peers who complete response papers and essays with alcohol in their systems and I think it would be interesting to look at the effects of academic performance while intoxicated. I think it would be fun to look at this in terms of creative writing because many people justify that alcohol consumption lowers inhibition which allows “creative juices” to flow.

    One question I have about the set up of this experiment was the second testing a week later. I am under the impression that the same test was taken a week later without any restudying of the information. I wonder how the passage of a week may influence forgetting. I also wonder how the mood congruence effect plays out in this experiment.

  8. April 14th, 2013 at 19:47 | #8

    I thought this post was extremely interesting and was a little surprised by the findings. This topic is extremely relevant to our lives as college students and it would be interesting to do some follow up studies concerning other aspects of college social life. When one goes out and drinks for the night, he/she usually doesn’t get as much sleep as someone who did not over the course of a weekend. It would be interesting to see how a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption affect memory and cognitive function by simulating a potential Friday-Monday type scenario. I am wondering if the combination of the two would cause more of an effect than just one or the other.
    Furthermore, I was curious if the effects of alcohol in this study would change if the participants became even more intoxicated. I read a study once that stated that after one night of “black out”, muscle memory is set back seven “practice” days. So in essence, you lose seven days of practice for one night of very heavy drinking. I am wondering if similar results would be found in the academic realm.

  9. April 14th, 2013 at 17:07 | #9

    This was an interesting topic to read about. Being in a college setting, I feel that this is relevant to our lives at the moment. Often, when engaging in drinking, one is not actively thinking about the ways in which they will be affected in the near, or distant future. As demonstrated in this study, there were mood differences and cognitive performance impairments, such that individuals reported not feeling all that great the day after drinking. Additionally, more complex tasks, such as essay writing may show diminished performance for those who drank the previous night. Despite discussion of these effects, I too found it surprising that there was no significant difference in performance on the multiple choice assessments. Individuals that did and did not drink performed equally as well on the exam. I do think that it important to note differences in the lab setting of this study and of real-life. As mentioned, researchers were not able to take into account sleep deprivation, class absence, and decreased studying that might be a result of such drinking. In addition, when drinking, people sometimes make poor choices that do affect them in the short-term and might influence their performance on an assessment the following day. Overall, I found the results of this study to be both interesting and surprising.

  10. tojama
    April 11th, 2013 at 17:39 | #10

    I actually enjoyed reading this particular article because I feel like it is very relevant to the lives of college students. For one, the title definitely caught my attention. As a college student, we are always fazed with the question of when to go out and how much time to devote to studying on the weekend when we have exams the next week. Some students may say that they want to go out and release their stress before a busy week and some spend the entire weekend in the library struggling to study. Reading this article I was surprised to find out that students who have heavily drank the night before an exam ended performing relatively similar to students who had not been drinking at all. As Melissa stated above though there are other factors that haven’t been taken into account when students were tested like how long they have devoted to studying and the effect that the alcohol consumption had on each individual (throwing up next morning).

  11. March 31st, 2013 at 19:36 | #11

    Unfortunately, there are far too many college students across the country who engage in a night of bing drinking before an exam, making this blog post particularly relevant in today’s college society. The study results showed no significant difference in participants’ academic test-taking abilities, but I found this to be rather surprising. I know of several people who foolishly decided to go out the night before an exam, and ended up getting carried away. Like in the study, the exams were also all multiple-choice, but unlike in the study, these students did not nearly do as well as they all knew they could have. So what is the difference, then, between these students and the students from the summarized article? The issue lies in the varying effects of the alcohol on the individual. For those who were up half the night throwing up, like the students I know were, it would make more sense to suffer when taking an exam than a group of students who drank a lot, but managed to avoid vomiting. So while the study did isolate the effects of binge drinking, I do not feel that it can be ultimately decided that academic test-taking abilities will not be significantly affected by binge-drinking because not everyone experiences the same reaction from excessively drinking. It is the varying of reactions from alcohol that truly impact test-taking abilities, in my opinion.

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