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Does Caffeine Help Academic Performance?


Last October Neuro, an energy drink company, held an online contest to name the newest flavor of their NeuroSonic energy drink. Without thinking much about it, I submitted a name and entered my address (all entrants got mailed a coupon for a free drink, after all!). Imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I was notified that my submission made it into the top ten, earning me the consolation prize: an entire year of NeuroSonic! Two months later, 16 crates of the energy drink arrived at my house: a total of 384 bottles and 38,400 mg of caffeine.  I returned from winter break with 12 crates of my newly-acquired energy drink in tow, and neatly stacked them in my dorm. Every day I’d slip a NeuroSonic into my backpack, drinking it during my morning class. After a few weeks of this, I started drinking another bottle in the afternoon while doing homework. Then I began to wonder: is all of this caffeine actually improving my academic performance? What will happen when I run out of my free caffeinated beverage? Was there really “mental performance in every bottle®“?

Caffeine is an important part of many people’s diets, and it is especially popular among students. It is assumed by many that caffeine improves academic performance, yet few have tested it. A 2013 study published by Rogers et al. offers some valuable insight. In this study, the effects of caffeine (and caffeine withdrawal) on sleepiness, mental alertness, anxiety, and  motor skills were evaluated. The study included two groups of people: those who do not consume caffeine or have a  low daily intake (<40mg), and those who have a medium to high daily intake (≥40mg). From this point on,  the group with a low/none daily intake will be called the “lower group”, and the group with higher intake will be the “higher group”. Participants were either given 250mg of caffeine pills or placebos after a night of abstaining from caffeine (for reference, an 8oz cup of coffee has about 100mg of caffeine) . Then they were asked to carry out a number of tasks, including a finger tapping exercise that measured motor skills and questions that used a 9 point scale to measure mental alertness, sleepiness, and anxiety/jitteriness.

Possibly the most important aspect of caffeine, its ability to reduce sleepiness, will be analyzed first. The study found that those in the lower group who received caffeine pills showed decreased sleepiness, while those in the same group who received a placebo showed a normal level of sleepiness. Those in the higher group who received caffeine showed a normal level of sleepiness, while those in the same group who received a placebo showed increased sleepiness. The lower placebo group showed sleepiness equal to that of the higher caffeine group. This shows that those who regularly consume caffeine are not decreasing overall sleepiness, but rather combating the sleepiness caused by caffeine withdrawal.

Anxiety and jitteriness are common side effects of caffeine; jitteriness in particular is associated with too much caffeine intake. Anxiety/ jitteriness was observed exclusively in the members of the lower group who received caffeine. Those who regularly consume caffeine build up a tolerance which prevents jitters.

Mental alertness is directly tied to academic performance. It is what allows students to pay attention to lectures, study, and take tests. Mental alertness is dependent upon both sleepiness and concentration. Those in the higher group who received a placebo had a lower mental alertness, which was caused by their increased sleepiness. Those in the higher group who received caffeine as well as those in the lower group who received a placebo all showed no increase in mental alertness, as there was no increase or decrease in sleepiness. It would be tempting to conclude then that those in the lower group who received caffeine showed increased mental alertness, as they were the only group to show decreased sleepiness. However, that is not the case. The benefit of decreased sleepiness is cancelled out by jitteriness and anxiety, which can break concentration. Therefore, caffeine was not shown to increase mental alertness in any group, and therefore it does not increase academic performance.

It is rather upsetting to discover that caffeine does not increase mental alertness. However, if it is any consolation, caffeine improved motor skills in both groups that received it. In fact, performance in the key tapping task (which measures motor performance) affects both groups equally; both groups that received caffeine tapped at the same speed. In addition to this, both groups that received a placebo also performed equally well, showing that caffeine tolerance or withdrawal has no effect on motor performance.

caffeine table

Here’s a quick table summarizing the findings of the experiment

Overall, caffeine does little to improve academic performance other than combat its own withdrawal symptoms. However, caffeine’s ability to keep people awake longer, allowing for more waking hours, can prove invaluable in a college environment.

As for the NeuroSonic, I managed to finish all of it (with the help of some friends) in a little under 4 months. I was too tired to go out and cash in on my $15 worth of 5¢ state recycling refunds, so I just threw used the hall recycling bin.















Work Cited:

Rogers, P., Heatherley, S., Mullings, E., & Smith, J. Faster but not smarter: effects of caffeine and caffeine withdrawal on alertness and performance. Psychopharmacology226, 229-240. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from the Springer Link database.

Here’s a link to the article

Categories: Attention, Education Tags:
  1. May 5th, 2014 at 20:43 | #1

    Awesome post! Caffeine is the most consumed drug in the world so studies such as this are more relevant than we initially assume. Around 90% of Americans consume caffeine daily. I was also surprised to see that it did not improve performance, despite increases in mental performance due to the anxiety and withdrawal symptoms. This makes sense to me, as I often have to regulate the amount of coffee I consume. If I have too much, my work suffers likely due to the anxiousness discussed in the study. Too much of a stimulant is definitely has negative outcomes. The study describes the withdrawal symptoms involved in caffeine consumption. Caffeine, just like other stimulant drugs, has significant withdrawal symptoms that lead to dependance on the drug. This explains why some people need it to function in their jobs. Building a tolerance and suffering from caffeine withdrawal will cause an individual to consume more of the drug to fend off the negative effects.

    An important point is that caffeine can still offer benefits in an academic setting. Caffeine allows for more volume of work to be done, even if it does not increase the levels of productivity. I would like to see a study that analyzes the cognitive processes in more detail. Would caffeinated participants score better if they were given more complex mental tasks to conquer than the ones offered in the study? It is also worth noting that caffeine, along with others drugs such as nicotine, have been shown to increase learning and memory due to their deep levels of engagement with brain structures governing these processes. So don’t write off the possible benefits of caffeine just yet! However, this post illuminates that there are some myths about caffeine’s capabilities. I hope this is studied in further detail. It is too pertinent to our society to ignore and more knowledge of the effects on cognitive performance would benefit all of us.

  2. May 6th, 2014 at 10:33 | #2

    Wow. I can’t believe you actually drank all of the NeuroSonic. To be honest it looks kind of disgusting. Did it have a lot of Red40 in it? I’m very wary of energy drinks and dyes.

    On another note, this post was very interesting. As a person who has been caffeine free since January of 2012, I often wonder if I’m missing out on anything in my academics. I’m glad to hear that I am not. I guess what I am curious about is what can help to improve mental alertness? A lot of students rely on caffeine to get them through the day, but I wonder whether or not it is more a dependence now than an actual benefit.

    I’m also curious to know if the quality of the homework done while a student is caffeinated differs than the work when non-caffeinated. I think it would be interesting to examine that between the same groups in the study. However, quality is likely a more difficult variable to assess. But it would still be really interesting! I’d be interesting to learn about further research in this topic.

  3. May 7th, 2014 at 17:50 | #3

    Really cool post. Especially given that the energy drink market has become so massive. According to caffeineinformer.com, Red Bull was the top selling energy drink in 2013, selling more than $4.3 billion of their product in one fiscal year. It’s become such an extremely competitive market (sorry, NeuroSonic, you may have a long way to go) because people desire the increase in alertness and attentiveness that ultimately leads to better performance.

    That being said, what makes this study so intriguing is that the “lower” placebo group had the same results across the board as the “higher” caffeine group (except for motor skills, however, I’m skeptical that the key tapping task is an accurate indicator of motor skills and not an increase in jitteriness). This essentially means that once you develop a caffeine dependency, you need the caffeine to maintain the same mental alertness levels and sleepiness levels of a non-caffeine user.

    I would like to see more raw data on the “lower” caffeine group, as it seems odd to me that the decrease in sleepiness and increase in anxiety/jitteriness would perfectly cancel out to result in zero change in mental alertness. Surely the caffeine would have to tip the scale in some small way.

    Also, it would be interesting to do the same study but with varying levels of caffeine. Perhaps there’s a goldilocks amount of caffeine for the occasional user that decreases sleepiness and increases mental alertness, yet doesn’t have a large effect on anxiety or jitters.

  4. May 7th, 2014 at 23:28 | #4

    I thought this post was very interesting due to its relevance and clever hook. You clearly have a connection to this topic, as winning and drinking the neursonic would make me interested in the effects that it has on my body as well.

    One question that I have is about the use of the word alertness. I notice that both you and the researchers use it and wonder if it means alertness in its true sense — as being awake and aroused — or rather a substitute for attention. I believe that it actually means the latter; however, I feel that your discussion on alertness mirrors a possible discussion for attention. Just as “mental alertness,” attention impacts one’s concentration, which can impact academic performance. While caffeine’s impact on alertness is widely known — albeit not necessarily on a scientific level — the impact of caffeine on attention is less common. In fact, I cannot recall ever learning about that specifically. From personal experience, I feel that the amount of caffeine I have changes its impact on my attention. When I have only a small amount of caffeine (say a cup of tea, because I do not like coffee) it does improve my attention, as it wakes me up enough that I can actually focus; however, when I have too much caffeine, I become hyperactive and cannot focus. These effects may be related to my alertness rather than attentional impacts; however, I think that it would be interesting to investigate how attentional pathways are impacted by caffeine intake.

  5. May 8th, 2014 at 12:08 | #5

    I found this post to be interesting, since I usually drink at least one cup of coffee a day. I even plan out exactly when to drink it before I need to do a task requiring concentration. For example, when I take a test, I usually drink one cup one hour before the test to boost my focus. I won’t drink too much too late to avoid anxiety. However, after reading this study, I realize that my efforts may all be for nothing. My use of coffee might only be fighting the sleepiness caused by withdrawal from caffeine.

    Even though this study states that caffeine has no effect on concentration, I still feel as if it does when I drink it. This could be a result of a placebo effect. That is, when I drink coffee I feel like I should be able to focus better, and therefore I do focus better. I think that the placebo affect could result in people actually focusing better when drinking caffeine. If people know they are consuming caffeine, then they may concentrate better, simply due to expectations. This could be studied by adding two more test groups to the previous study. One group that consumes caffeine, and one that consumes a placebo. However, both groups will be told that they are consuming caffeine to help their concentration. If these two groups do better than the two groups without caffeine expectations, then it will show that the placebo effect has a strong impact on concentration regarding caffeine.

  6. May 8th, 2014 at 22:57 | #6

    This is a very well written, well-researched piece that has very real implications in many Americans’ lives, especially college students. Caffeine, especially when consumed as coffee, has many beneficial health effects, but caffeine dependence and withdrawal, as well as the more extreme caffeine induced psychosis, are some of the possible negative health effects of caffeine use. I noticed that this study (Rogers et al., 2013) was done using four treatment groups (lower caffeine, lower placebo, higher caffeine, higher placebo) and I could not help but wonder if intermediate groups in this paradigm would result in different outcomes (e.g. a medium caffeine group of 100mg). I especially liked your personal anecdote about Neurosonic, and I think the amount of boxes that they shipped to you is actually kind of humorous because they may have just done it as a method of advertising. In other words, giving you product to use and get out into the outside world helps them gain visibility and makes you, in a way, a sort of Neurosonic marketer!
    The findings of the study actually surprised me because I would imagine the mental alertness effects would give students an advantage in regard to academics. Even still, the finding that any residual benefit of caffeine may be a direct result of lowering the effects of caffeine withdrawal makes complete sense. I would like to see more studies done on caffeine’s effects on cognition, such as a similar study to the one done on people’s ability to multitask in a driving scenario. I would predict that caffeine, as a result of its ability to keep individuals awake longer during a given day, may have positive effects on multitasking abilities, given some of the multitasking studies that we have discussed in class.

  7. May 9th, 2014 at 12:47 | #7

    Great post, and quite valuable to any college student. As someone who drinks a fair amount of caffeine, this was interesting to read. My only problem with the study was that the caffeine was administered to participants in two set doses. The body’s response to larger, less frequent doses would be much different than if the equivocal amount of caffeine was spread out throughout the day. I think lower, frequent doses would be much beneficial because they maintain a steady baseline instead of a spike followed by a crash. Caffeine administered at an even rate would probably reduce the occurrence of jitters/anxiety and could help to improve academic performance. It would be interesting to see a followup study to this one that altered dose/frequency as a variable. Thanks for posting!

  8. May 9th, 2014 at 15:53 | #8

    Interesting post. I liked how you started out the article sharing your own experience of how caffeine helped your academic performance (or at least how you thought it did). Especially with heavily consumed it is around college campuses, it is obviously important to investigate its effects, whether positive or negative, on academic performance. So, I thought you picked a really relevant article to discuss. The point that I will take away from your post is the effects of caffeine can only be beneficial if it is not consumed reguarly. Otherwise, one builds up a tolerance and its effects are diminished and withdrawal symptoms can ensue. As a former drinker of coffee every day, I can certainly attest to the unpleasantness of such withdrawals. Now, I only drink coffee when I need it, and I prefer it much better that way.

  9. May 9th, 2014 at 16:56 | #9

    @Ryan Neville
    Thanks for commenting! Regarding the placebo effect, I do believe that it is a significant factor on how caffeine affects different people. Take me, for instance. I typically drink 4 cups of coffee daily (2-3 at breakfast and 1-2 at lunch), amounting to 400mg of caffeine. When I started drinking NeuroSonic, I was able to replace 2-3 cups of coffee with a bottle of NeuroSonic, even though a single bottle only 100mg (the same amount as 8oz of coffee). The placebo effect could have been a factor in why 100mg of caffeine from the energy drink felt like 300mg of caffeine from coffee. I’ve also considered that conditioning may play a factor in how “energizing” NeuroSonic is. Perhaps caffeine tolerance is affected by the method of receiving caffeine. If one drinks coffee often and suddenly switches to an unfamiliar drink with an equivalent amount of caffeine, the tolerance may not be as high, as the drink has not been conditioned. One last theory as to why I felt more hyped up on NeuroSonic was the fact that it contained some sugar (I tend to only drink (black) coffee, water, and tea, all of which are devoid of sugar).

  10. May 9th, 2014 at 17:48 | #10

    I have to say this is the most well written post I have read. It was clear and concise as well as extremely informative. I can not believe you drank every bottle in less than 4 months. That is a lot of caffeine. I personally do not drink beverages with caffeine very often so I can not even imagine.

    Although I am afraid of becoming addicted to caffeine, I have always wondered if it would help me study for tests or do better in a class. After reading this blog post I have come to the conclusion that it really is not worth the better motor skills for a few hours. If you don’t have caffeine you are more tired than people who do not drink caffeine at all. I thought it was very interesting that the higher group had increased sleepiness without caffeine in comparison to the lower group. I am also intrigued by the data suggesting that the higher group returns a person to their normal level of mental alertness. If you are not increasing your mental alertness by drinking caffeine more often then why drink it at all? I believe now more than ever I am just not a caffeine person.

    Although it si very interesting, I think this post could be tied to the concepts of cognitive psychology a little more. The Alertness could be related to Attention. How does the caffeine affect a persons ability to disregard distraction while studying. Does the increased alertness help you to have more control of you endogenous orienting ability? If you add some more cognitive psych into it, I believe your post could be the best!

  11. May 10th, 2014 at 15:07 | #11

    So interesting! Its crazy how much we overestimate the benefits of caffeine in our society. It sounds like while a cup of coffee can make you stay awake longer, it won’t do anything for mental alertness, and therefore mental performance, unless you only have one once in a while. I wonder how an experiment on memory capacity and span would show. I would be interested to see a more in-depth study of caffeine in different learning environments and capacities, across a wider range of tasks. Better go buy more NeuroSonic, because the caffeine withdrawal sounds tiring!

  12. December 3rd, 2014 at 17:28 | #12

    This is an awesome post and so relevant to the lives of college students. I myself am contemplating a coffee run right now to help me get through my work. It is kind of surprising that there are no changes in mental alertness. It would be interesting to see the results of a “moderate” intake group, because maybe they would still get the benefits of less sleepiness and fewer jitters/anxiety. But while this study shows that caffeine doesn’t necessarily help academic performance the way most of us would hope, it disincentivizes those with higher caffeine intake to stop consuming caffeine, and may even incentivize those on the low end to consume more because they don’t really have anything to lose (aside from becoming addicted to caffeine) and they would get the benefit of being less sleepy and improved motor skills. I think it would also be worthwhile for future studies to look into ways to negotiate the withdrawals/tolerance, because that might help this aspect.
    It is also interesting that participants consuming caffeine showed increased motor skills. This makes sense because a number of studies have connected caffeine to better athletic performance, so this is likely an extension of that.
    It’s too bad that my coffee probably won’t get my work done any faster, but I’ll settle for just staying awake long enough to do it!

  13. jfreeman
    October 21st, 2015 at 23:45 | #13

    As a rare drinker of caffeine for the past 3 years, I have wondered for a long time whether or not I was missing out on any added academic performance benefits especially in the case of drinking coffee. This study demonstrates that I am probably not missing out on anything, because the decrease in sleepiness, and the increase in anxiety/jitters cancel out for low-caffeine drinkers. Although this canceling out feels like a simplification of the actual effect of caffeine on academic performance, because a perfect canceling out doesn’t seem quite possible.

    Also, I believe another factor was left out of this experiment done by the researchers: reduced sleepiness becoming a detriment rather than a benefit. There is a chance that the effect of caffeine on sleepiness could result in a situation of sleep deprivation on the student. Basically, a student has so much caffeine that they continually over the course of a week or so (how long it takes to see the effects of sleep deprivation) sleep less than a desirable amount. This less than desirable amount of sleep could even interfere with the student’s sleep cycle especially REM sleep. In a state of REM sleep deprivation, students could experience increased anxiety, irritability, chance of depression, etc. All three of these potential effect of REM sleep deprivation would result in decreased academic performance especially the increased anxiety, because the researchers explained itself that increased anxiety leads to a decrease in mental awareness. Therefore, large amount of caffeine over an extended period of time could result in too strong of an effect of sleepiness resulting in sleep deprivation and possibly REM sleep deprivation.

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