Bad Habits Can Mean Bad Grades, University of Minnesota Study Finds
- Kathryn Stewart
- Wednesday, November 12th, 2008
Bad habits can mean bad grades, University of Minnesota study finds
By Jeremy Olson - firstname.lastname@example.org
TwinCities.com-Pioneer PressArticle Last Updated: 10/20/08
"Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.
"The immortal advice of "Animal House's" Dean Wormer has proved correct in a study released today by the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service.
Comparing grades with survey responses from more than 9,000 students, researchers found that low grades were more common among Minnesota undergraduates who didn't exercise, lacked sleep, watched too much TV,gambled, drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes.
The first-of-its-kind report also found lower grades among students who suffered stress, asthma, injury or mental illness, but the lead author said the results should be particularly alarming to students with avoidable behaviors.
"If you're investing a lot of time and money in your education, do you really want to waste your investment on behaviors that interfere with your academic success?" said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Boynton's director and chief health officer.
The results included undergraduate students from 14 Minnesota schools, including the five U campuses. Researchers sent the survey to 24,000 students, and the high response rate - thanks to a $3,000 lottery incentive - gave the results added muscle.
Before you say "duh!" - who doesn't know lack of sleep affects performance? - consider that no other study has actually compared grades with so many behaviors. The results also serve as a counterpoint to students who see a little smoking or drinking as a good way to cope with stressful studies.
The average GPA for nonsmokers was 3.28, while the average for daily smokers was 3.09. But even students who smoked once or twice a month had lower grades. Their average GPA was 3.16.
"Using tobacco to calm down or to be social is lowering students' grades," Ehlinger said.
The survey doesn't prove cause and effect. While it's possible excessive television causes students' lower grades, it's also possible lower grades cause students to watch more TV. It's also possible that watching TV is an escape mechanism for anxiety or depression, which could be the real culprit.
Franziska Johnson, a sophomore English major at the U, said she smokes to calm the nerves that come with the studies, the tests, the commute from Richfield and the 20-hour work week at Starbucks.
"My grades aren't, like, the best right now, but I wouldn't say it's from the smoking," the 20-year-old said. "It's more from the stress, and smoking helps me kind of deal with the stress.
"Ehlinger said the results should at least serve as a warning. Parents should note a lack of sleep or other concerning behaviors in their children. Teachers should support students with asthma or other chronic illnesses who are prone to lower grades. Universities should promote student health clinics to prevent and treat illnesses that can hurt academic achievement.
Insured students had better grades than those uninsured. Ehlinger said this is significant at a time when more employers are carving out college-age dependents from their parents' health plans.
University researchers expected poorer grades among working students who have less time to study, but the survey showed that 40-hour workers had better grades than students who didn't work at all. The new thinking is that students working to pay tuition might be more motivated and better at time management.
"It seems like the busier you are, the more determined you are to get your homework done," said Katherine Schwachtgen, 19, a full-time sophomore at the U who works 20 hours per week, practices twice a week for her club volleyball team and volunteers once a week in a YMCA mentoring program.
Running relieves stress and clears her mind before studying. "It takes up a little time," she said, "but, otherwise, I'm just sitting at my computer spacing out.
"The survey found little variation among the 14 participating schools.
It didn't examine "clusters" of students who tipped the balance by engaging in multiple behaviors such as smoking, drinking, gambling and excessive Internet surfing.
One clear finding: Every mental health stressor - such as a death in the family or divorcing parents or a financial problem - in the past year affects grades. Students with no stressors averaged 3.37 for GPAs, while those with five or more in the past year averaged less than a 3.0.
Stress itself was a major factor. Seven of 10 surveyed students reported stress, and half of those students believed it affected school performance. But the study found that the level of stress didn't influence grades as much as students' perceived coping abilities.
The average GPA for students who didn't believe their stress affected their performance was almost identical to the 3.23 GPA for students who reported no stress at all. However, the students who thought stress was affecting their grades were correct. That group's average GPA was only 3.12.
"When students think they're having an issue," Ehlinger said, "they really are.
"U sophomore Jeff Helseth is the health advocate for Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which means he's the guy with the First Aid bag of ibuprofen, Band-Aids, condoms and other supplies. The fraternity uses group runs and other activities as stress relievers, he said, but many students use weekend drinking and partying for the same purpose.
Some get the grades anyway.
"People that don't do that stuff definitely get good grades," he said, "but there are people who can go out and drink a ton and do stupid stuff and still get decent grades."
"I don't know how they do it," he added. "They must be naturally smart."
Photographer Richard Marshall contributed to this report.Jeremy Olson can be reached at 651-228-5583.