Impulsivity and Academic Achievement in College Students

By Spinella, Marcello; Miley, William M. | College Student Journal, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Impulsivity and Academic Achievement in College Students


Spinella, Marcello, Miley, William M., College Student Journal


Impulsivity is a wide-ranging trait, affecting multiple areas of one's life, including education. The educational process is a long-term, goal-oriented undertaking, which could be undermined by an impulsive tendency to act on immediate demands. Research in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) demonstrates that impulsivity reduces educational achievement, even after adjustments for IQ are made. This study examined the relationship in adults enrolled in an undergraduate college course using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11) and exam grades. An inverse relationship was demonstrated between academic grades and the BIS-11 total and factor scores, supporting previous research done in children. The neurobiological underpinnings of this relationship are tentative, but anatomical studies suggest a role for prefrontal-subcortical circuits that mediate self-control.

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Impulsivity could be defined as a tendency to act hastily on one's urges or on environmental demands. It connotes a shortsighted approach to situations, placing importance on immediate results, often at the expense of future accomplishments. Thus, impulsivity is typically antithetical to long-term, goal-oriented behaviors. It is a common feature of many psychiatric conditions, including bipolar disorder, suicide, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, and conduct disorder (van Heerigan, 2001, Chretien and Persinger, 2000, American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Swann et al., 2001).

Impulsivity is a wide-ranging personality trait, impacting upon several domains of an individual's functioning, e.g. cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional. The pursuit of higher education is a long-term, goal-oriented behavior, in which both the long-term rewards (occupational opportunities, salary, prestige) and short-term rewards (grades) tend to be delayed. Thus, a tendency toward impulsivity would be anticipated to hinder academic performance by influencing multiple contributing factors. For example, greater impulse control would allow an individual to remain focused in lectures or studying sessions, where distractions with more immediate appeal are present. College students in particular have a variety of demands made on their time from a variety of sources, including academic, occupational, social, and recreational. Even within the context of learning and studying, greater impulse control would allow an individual to take a more strategic than haphazard approach to tasks.

Several studies have examined the relationship between impulsivity and academic achievement in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Children rated high on impulsivity have been demonstrated to achieve lower grades than their peers with low impulsivity ratings (Merrell and Tymms, 2001). This relationship has been found with objective measures of impulsivity as well, including verbal impulsivity (e.g. Meade, 1981). Further, impulsivity is consistently associated with lower grades and achievement scores, even when IQ is partialled out (Meade, 1981; Miyakawa, 2001). Little appears to have been done in this regard in the adult-age and college population. However, one study has demonstrated that the Executive Process Questionnaire, which measures metacognitive executive skills, related positively to college students' grade point averages (Hall, 2001).

Thus, this study sought to examine self-ratings of impulsivity in relation to objective academic performance in college-level students.

Methods

Participants

The participants were 27 undergraduate students (18 female, 9 male) enrolled in a physiological psychology class, taught by one of the authors (M.S.). The course was an elective that counted as credit toward a bachelor's degree. The students ranged in age from 19 to 42 years (mean 24.96 [+ or -] 5.3 years) and had between 12 and 16 years of education completed (mean 14. …

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