Ph.D. Student Researches How Classes Affect Alcohol and Drug Use

VERMILLION, S.D. – A Ph.D. student is looking into what impact, if any, entry-level addiction studies courses have on students’ lifestyles and choices regarding alcohol and drug use.

Melissa Dittberner, a Ph.D. student studying human development and educational psychology, is researching the correlation between knowledge and behavior for her dissertation.

“What I’ve done is survey students about their substance behaviors and substance knowledge,” she said. “This helps us get a better idea if these courses are actually decreasing the risk in behaviors and increasing the knowledge.”

She has surveyed 659 students in addiction studies intro classes, Study of Alcohol Use and Abuse and Study of Drug Use and Abuse. Dittberner also surveyed 450 students outside of the addiction studies courses so she could compare the changes between the groups.

“We have enough comparison between students taking our classes and students who aren’t,” said Frank Zavadil, addiction studies department chair. “Those students outside addiction studies will serve as the control group.”

Students take two surveys, one at the beginning of the semester and one at the end. Dittberner said this helps determine how much of a change, if any, has occurred when students learn about the dangers of addiction.

“I look at the increases and decreases of alcohol use, substance use, if alcohol or drugs are affecting (students’) college experience,” she said. “At the end of the survey, I asked knowledge questions about addiction studies, to see if students taking the survey know about the risks.”

Anna Budahl, a senior addiction studies and counseling major, said in an email that the introduction classes taught her about the risks of substance abuse.

“The information from (the classes) introduced a lot of general information about drugs that I was completely unaware of,” she said.

Dittberner hopes the research will show that students respond to the courses in positive ways. “My hypothesis is that these courses will increase knowledge,” she said. “We’ll see if behavior affects knowledge, or if knowledge affects behavior.”

If the research shows what they expect it to, Zavadil said they could request that the courses be required for all students.

“Once we get the information, we would go through our dean and our provost and work our way through the proper channels,” he said. “Being able to explain the benefits of these classes would help get these to general education.”

Budahl said having USD students take the introductory classes could potentially reduce the number of drug-related incidences on and off campus.

“It would be very beneficial for USD if the two intro classes were required to take because it could create more awareness and education about the effects of drugs and its impact on a person,” she said. Dittberner said she’s been working on her research for nine months and would like to continue it as long as she can.

“As long as I’m at USD, I’ll keep going,” she said.

Depending on the results of the study, Dittberner may recommend all students take these courses.

“At the end of the day, I’d like to go to the Board of Regents and ask for these courses to be added to general education,” she said. “This would give students a broader spectrum on what substances are and how to deal with people affected by them. You have a 100 percent chance to run into someone who’s addicted, or be addicted yourself.”

Although she was able to find a lot of research on how courses affect students, Dittberner couldn’t find much data to support the claim.

“I’m trying to use this as an evidence-based program,” she said. “We want to be able to say, ‘This is what works to decrease substance use,’ so we can use this as a proof to USD and other schools.”

This article was originally published in The Volante. It has been republished with their permission.

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