By Kathleen Megan – The Hartford Courant (MCT)
To Bradley Spahn, it seemed like a clear case of cheating.
The Wesleyan University student was assigned a 24-hour take-home exam. Later, he said, nearly half the class would admit to taking so-called “study drugs” medications like Ritalin or Adderall to help them focus during the exam. They either took the drugs without a prescription or, if they had a prescription, took more than the prescribed dose.
“It seemed pretty obvious that taking illegal drugs to help you do better on an exam is cheating,” said Spahn, now a senior. “I think it is just as serious as plagiarism.”
The incident spurred Spahn to expand an effort he already had begun: trying to get the university to classify the abuse of “study drugs” usually stimulants prescribed for attention disorders as cheating.
During the 2008-09 academic year, Wesleyan’s honor code review committee took up the matter but decided not to include study drugs. But the university’s non-academic code of conduct covers the abuse of prescription drugs—along with alcohol and drug abuse.
While all universities are concerned about the abuse of prescription drugs as a health and legal issue, questions about fairness and cheating are seldom raised, as they were at Wesleyan.
Benedict Bernstein, a 2009 graduate of Wesleyan who as chairman of the academic affairs committee was present at the honor code review meetings, said he could not disclose the discussion but said he did not support the inclusion of study drugs in the code.
“I didn’t feel that it could be prosecuted,” he said.
A college might be able to prove that a student was in possession of “study drugs,” but he said it would be very difficult to prove that the drugs were used to prepare a particular paper or for a test.
And then, he said, there would be more questions raised: Would it violate the honor code if a student found he or she could study more effectively while under the influence of marijuana?
A statement from Michael Whaley, vice president of student affairs at Wesleyan, said the university does not “condone any form of illicit drug use” and that there is “no reason to believe that the misuse of prescription drugs has increased at Wesleyan, but national survey data seems to indicate that such misuse is becoming a concern nationally.”
Indeed, several college administrators interviewed for this story said that while the questions about fairness and study drugs have not come up in discussions about cheating yet, they expect such questions to arise in the future.
Ann Reuman, an associate dean of students at Trinity College, said she could see that students taking “study drugs” without prescriptions might be likened to athletes on steroids.
“It is an unfair advantage when someone is using these kinds of drugs inappropriately,” she said.
On the other hand, she said, a student might legally consume “No Doz, Red Bull or vats of coffee” to produce the same kind of effect.
“It would be a great thing to discuss,” Reuman said. “I would guess that most students wouldn’t consider it to be cheating.”
The medications in question Ritalin, Adderall and others are stimulants that are generally prescribed for children and adults who have attention disorders. As the numbers of children diagnosed with attention disorders has multiplied in the past couple decades, so too has the availability of the drugs, whether among high school students or on college campuses.
For someone with a disorder, the drugs work to help the person focus and maintain concentration. But people without the disorder also experience an increase in energy and focus, so students seek it out, particularly during midterm and exam periods.
Yitfrah Kaminer, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said studies show that 4 to 8 percent of college students use such stimulants regularly, getting them without prescriptions.
He said that between 10 and 16 percent of young people who are medicated for attention deficit disorder share or sell their pills with others.
Kaminer said the drugs definitely can improve concentration and focus in people who do not have any attention disorders.
At Wesleyan, Spahn said he has noticed that it tends to be top students who seek out the medications because they are concerned about performing well.
David Callahan, the author of “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” said he doesn’t think taking study drugs “qualifies as cheating in the way that cheating has been traditionally defined.”
He said he understands “the sentiment that a study drug gives advantages to some students.” But, he said, “if you find a way to study more effectively, to master more information… one can make an argument that to the degree study drugs allow people to put more information in their brain or master a more complex idea, what’s wrong with that?”
Even if the drugs are illegally obtained?
“I guess that’s a different issue,” Callahan said. “That’s an issue about drug abuse.”
A student who attends UConn at the Waterbury campus said his roommate has a prescription for Adderall and lets him have a pill when he needs one to get his work done.
“You can interpret it as cheating if you are talking about academic integrity,” said the student, whose name the Hartford Courant did not use because he is using the drug illegally.
But he said he doesn’t see it as cheating because he is so busy — working full time and going to college full time — in which he otherwise would be unable to succeed.
He said it helps him to do the work needed to pass his classes: “It can make the difference between a ‘B’ and an ‘A’ on a paper,” he said.