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Stressed? Take Ritalin

Stressed? Take Ritalin

Photographer:Fotograaf: Think Stock

SBE worried about study drugs

Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil. Are SBE students taking ‘study drugs’ more often? Research by honours students shows that one in seven students from SBE has on occasion taken a ‘cognitive enhancer’. But also that the stress and the competitiveness at the faculty promote their use. Board member Huub Meijers: "I know that students feel that way, but I don’t recognise that picture.”

On the Sharing is Caring Facebook page, a FASoS student claims that ‘doping for exams’ – he is referring to Adderall – is a common phenomenon at Maastricht University. “Aside from the question just how honest this is, you could also ask yourself how healthy this learning environment is?”

On the same page, students are openly asking where they can obtain such study drugs, says Bas Janssens, tutor at the department of Organisation and Strategy. “I once saw a panicky appeal for Adderall. ‘Help, can anyone tell me where I can buy this?’ Someone else replied: ‘Come to the library, then we’ll sort something out.’ A former SBE student explained to me how he used Ritalin tablets, how he eased up during the block and had intensive concentration sessions before the exams.” 

Janssens emphasises that he has no hard figures, but would consider it a good idea if the faculty did further research. How many students are using smart drugs? How often? Who is susceptible to it: those who are performing well or those who aren’t?

31 per cent

SBE honours students had already reached that idea before the summer. They sent a questionnaire to 150 students, which showed: one in seven students had at some point used study drugs. “That surprised me,” says Jacoline Kleijn. She is third-year student of Fiscal Economics and was one of the five students who worked on the survey. “If so many students readily admit to using amphetamines, then in actual fact the numbers may be even greater.”

Maybe even twice as high. Because two years ago, five honours students at FASoS distributed 517 questionnaires to all faculties and they showed that one quarter of all students had used smart drugs at least once. The percentages were highest at SBE: 31 per cent. Immediately followed by the Faculty of Law: 30 per cent.

The economics faculty brought study drugs to the attention of the University Council, because they think that this doesn’t just concern SBE but the university as a whole.  

University College

In addition to the number of users, the SBE student researchers were interested in something else: which factors lead to the use of study drugs? An important trigger turned out to be stress, something many SBE students suffer from, Kleijn knows. “Maybe honours students study more than average, but personally I have very little time to relax. In fact, I study seven days a week, and I know the same goes for a lot of students.”

Lars Kracht from Germany has often heard from fellow students who have spent time abroad that SBE students spend more time studying than their counterparts at sister faculties. Kracht is in his third year of International Business Administration and also one of the student researchers. “On top of that, we have to learn a lot off by heart, which only increases the stress. I think that Germans have an even harder time, because grades are very important to German employers.”

Stress, but also the competitive environment do not help you stay away from study drugs, says Kracht. “It starts in first year. Those with the best grades are allowed to choose their work placements abroad first. It is different at University College, where motivation is also considered.”


Then there is participation in the tutorial groups, says Kleijn. “Those who contribute more to the discussion, receive a better assessment. In practice it is often about the question: who talks most? A shy student, who may have prepared very well, misses out. Tutors will give the quiet ones a turn, but students hardly ever do so.”

This creates a “poisonous atmosphere in the tutorial group,” says Kracht, with the risk of students trying to score points off others. “The discussion suffers as a result, which is already under pressure because so much content needs to be discussed. A quick solution to a problem is therefore handier than a long discussion on the matter.”

That certainly is a point, says Huub Meijers, member responsible for education. “That is when the experience and insight of a tutor come into play. An experienced tutor doesn’t focus on the duration of the time spoken but the content of the contribution. ”

Janssens consciously tries to temper the competitive atmosphere, he says, by creating “a pleasant learning environment”. “I want to prevent participation becoming a competition, students wanting to show how much they know, wanting to impress.”

Soft skills

All in all, Meijers doesn’t regard the atmosphere at SBE as being competitive. “I know that students feel that it is, but I don’t recognise that picture. What we are considering, partly because students have been complaining about it for years, is to adapt the foreign country ranking. Exactly how we are going to do this, we don’t know yet. A letter of motivation is not feasible with the number of students that we have.”

Meijers also knows that students in their own minds think that they have to work hard and are under pressure. “But I also hear that students feel that high marks are important, that they believe that high marks are a requirement with employers. That remains to be seen. A survey carried out by ROA (Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market) showed that European employers do not care for those at all. If you are average or above average, that’s fine with them. You only appear to have a problem if you passed by the skin of your teeth. Employers value soft skills such as teamwork and giving presentations above high grades. So what I’m saying is: it doesn’t always need to be a nine. Weigh the pros and cons. This may prevent you from getting stressed.”

Side effects

All well and good. But what about the smart drugs? Should the faculty discourage their use or even fight it? Or are students old and wise enough to make that decision themselves? “That’s a difficult question,” says Janssens. “I myself am rather liberal and inclined to feel that adults can make their own decisions. At any rate, you don’t want to patronise students. Although I do feel that they should be adequately informed. There is more information available about recreational drugs than there is about study drugs. The faculty or the university could play a role here, they could inform students about the dangers, effects and side effects.”

At any rate, Meijers feels that substances, when they are medication, should only be taken on prescription from a doctor. “Also because their use, certainly in the longer term, could be detrimental to one’s health.”



Studying through the night before exams is disastrous

Ritalin not only increases concentration in patients suffering from ADHD, but also improves the memory function. Two Maastricht studies showed this. The test subjects remembered more words after they had been administered a single dose of Ritalin. But the exact ins and outs are still shrouded in mystery, says researcher Anke Sambeth.

“In the one study, test subjects performed better than normal after only half an hour, while in the other the effects did not manifest themselves until 24 hours later. It is also unclear how long Ritalin continues to work, how often you need to take it. You need to do it during the study period, not on the day of the exams. And how much is needed? Our test subjects did not respond to 10 mg, but did to 20 and 40 mg.”

Sambeth often assesses the popularity of smart drugs but when students are asked in the lecture hall, not one hand goes up. “I advise students to study no more than eight hours on the day before an exam, to have a good night’s sleep and to drink a cup of coffee the following morning. This seems to me to be the best preparation; you don’t need Ritalin. The worst thing you can do is spend the whole night studying. Research has shown time and again that a good night’s sleep is important for cognitive performance.”

Be careful, Sambeth says, those pills are not harmless. “When you take them regularly, your hair may start to fall out, your appetite disappears and you will have trouble sleeping.”



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