Making college students think before they drink

Clarifying students' misperceptions about alcohol consumption

How many alcoholic drinks do you think the typical female or male college student consumes each week?

Some of you may be surprised to learn the results of a 2015 study I conducted. I surveyed a random sample of 496 students at a mid-size public university in New England to determine their weekly drinking habits as well as their perceptions of peers’ consumption. Overall, students reported having 3.57 drinks per week.

Students misperceived that their male peers had 6.89 drinks per week and that their female peers consumed 4.48 drinks per week. These inaccurate perceptions of social norms may encourage students to try to “fit in” by drinking more than they normally would.

Data collection

Clarifying misperceptions may result in fewer alcohol-related problems on our campuses. This article offers higher ed administrators a model to do just that.

The prevention effort described below is simple and straightforward. I suggest using it as part of the mandatory one-credit health course most colleges and universities require for incoming freshmen. Each session takes approximately 45 minutes to an hour.

I recommend beginning sessions in mid-October and continuing until all incoming freshmen have participated. The reason for not starting at the very beginning of the year is so you can gather students’ perceptions of how much their college peers’ drink—not their what they thought about their high school classmates’ habits.

Collecting information from sophomores, juniors and seniors is also an important component for any prevention effort. I suggest making it mandatory for returning students to complete a survey during the first weeks of the semester.

This information, when compared to the data collected from freshmen, becomes part of a school’s ongoing prevention effort.

The program

A staff member from the school’s Office of Wellness Education and Promotion or similar department acts as the facilitator. Each session should include a group of 25 to 50 students. Having at least one student-volunteer assist the facilitator adds credibility.

The session begins with a questionnaire. The student-volunteer tallies responses and writes the findings on the board so the facilitator can point out misperceptions. Students then work in small groups to generate ideas for giving their classmates a clearer picture of campus drinking habits. The entire group then discusses the students’ ideas.

Integrating students’ ideas in future prevention efforts is essential. Those who create, tend to support.

The questionnaire below is short and to the point—just three questions.

A survey of perceptions

The purpose of this study is to determine the number of drinks containing alcohol you consume per week and your perceptions of the number of drinks containing alcohol your female and male peers consume per week. Your participation is very important.

A drink containing alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or one shot of liquor. Please write your numbers in the blank spaces.

  1. On average I usually drink __ drinks containing alcohol per week.
  2. On average female students at this school usually drink __ drinks containing alcohol per week.
  3. On average male students at this school usually drink __ drinks containing alcohol per week.

I believe such efforts will strengthen other abuse prevention initiatives. For example, the campus-specific information the survey generates can become part of the alcohol awareness week activities most colleges and universities hold.

Covering a campus with posters in a Q&A format—i.e, asking how much students think their classmates drink, followed by the correct answers—will insure that the information reaches as many students as possible.

C. Kevin Synott is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Eastern Connecticut State University.

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