College Drinking: Students Pass Alcohol Quiz

In Survey, Most Students Accurately Reported How Much They Drank

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 14, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 14, 2005 -- College students generally have a decent idea of how much alcohol they consume, especially if they're drinking beer, a new study shows.

"It's good news for people who do survey research," researcher Aaron White, PhD, tells WebMD.

"It suggests that when students self-report how much they drink that it's probably pretty accurate," says White. He's an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

The study appears in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

But White isn't giving students an "A" on alcohol awareness just yet. He recently reported that college students flunked lab tests about standard servingsstandard servings of beer, wine, or liquor.

Midnight Pop Quiz

In White's latest study, researchers spent the wee hours of 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on a college campus. Nearly 150 students agreed to have breathalyzer tests and detail what they'd drunk that night.

The researchers took the students' self-reported drinking to estimate blood alcohol content. Then, White's team compared the estimates with actual blood alcohol levels from the breathalyzer machine.


Overall, the estimates were on target or a little bit higher.

"Students who are on campus on the weekend and are intoxicated have a pretty good sense of how much alcohol they're actually consuming, which is I think very good news," says White.

Mixed Marks

In White's earlier study, college students were asked to pour out standard-sized drinks and to verbally define how much alcohol is in standard glass of wine, beer, or liquor.

Want a cheat sheet for that? Standard servings are:

  • Beer: 12 ounces
  • Wine: 5 ounces
  • Cocktail: 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits

The college students failed that test. "When they pour drinks, they tend to pour way too much," says White. Those with the most inflated definitions poured the biggest drinks, especially when they were using large cups.

That made him question whether students were underreporting how much alcohol they drink.

Real World Check

The on-campus test counters that. "I think the difference really has to do with lab vs. real world experience," says White.


"I would predict that if students were only drinking free-poured or self-poured drinks, they would underestimate how much they're consuming," he says.

"But in the real world, at least in this sample of students on campus, they weren't just pouring their own drinks. And so we didn't find a huge difference between actual and estimated blood alcohol contents," says White.

Where's the Party?

What and where the students drank may have made a difference, notes White.

"Perhaps they were more likely to be drinking cans of beer or alcohol from restaurants and bars," says White of the students who took the on-campus breathalyzer tests.

"It could be that in this particular sample because they were on the campus, perhaps the amount of alcohol they were pouring themselves was relatively minimal."

"I think if we did this at off-campus parties, for instance, we might get something quite different because at off-campus parties where you have people pouring their own mixed drinks, drinking beer from kegs, that sort of thing, there's a lot more room for error," says White.

Actual and estimated blood alcohol levels were closest for students who only drank beer. "Since beer usually comes in a roughly standard serving size, it makes sense," says White.

Alcohol 101

"We clearly still have this problem where students, at least in a laboratory setting, have great difficulty pouring [standard-sized] drinks," says White.

"It suggests that we still need to continue to focus on education" about standard alcohol servings, he says.

College students aren't the only ones who need to learn that lesson, notes White. "This goes beyond college drinking. It has to do with educating the public."

It's also a good idea to consider the size of the cups or glasses you're using, suggests White.

"If you have a party and you want your guests to avoid unintentionally getting really intoxicated, you give reasonable-sized cups," he says. "You don't give a 32-ounce cup [for] a shot."

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: Kraus, C. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, September 2005; vol 29. WebMD Medical News: "College Alcohol 101: How Big Is 1 Drink?""College Alcohol 101: How Big Is 1 Drink?" Aaron White, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, Duke University. Distilled Spirits Council of the United States: "Standard Drinks Equivalence." News release, Duke University Medical Center.
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