Academic doping and “smart drugs”: What educators need to know


Image courtesy of patrisyu at

Image courtesy of patrisyu at

When athletes use performance-enhancing drugs it is called “doping”, but the practice has moved from the locker room to the study halls, as students have taken up the practice to help them perform better on exams and in-class. The informal or slang term for these substances is “smart drugs” because students are promised that the substances will make them smarter, at least temporarily. When used for academic performance enhancement, it’s called “academic doping” or, if you prefer a more formal term, “pharmacologic cognitive enhancement” (Aikins, Zhang, & McCabe, 2017, p. 230).

What are “smart drugs”?

These substances are most often stimulants or cognitive-enhancing drugs (CEDS) (Aikins, Zhang, & McCabe, 2017). They generally fall into two categories. The first is actual prescription medications that are used for non-medical purposes, with the most popular being Adderall®, Ritalin®  and Modafinil®, which is also known as Provigil® (Aikins, 2011; Aikins, Zhang, & McCabe, 2017, Vaughan & Diver, 2018). The second category are poor quality versions of these drugs made illegally, often in Russia, India and China (Vaughan & Diver, 2018).

In terms of how students acquire them, some get a prescription. Others buy from prescription users. Still others buy their supply from the Internet, specifically, the dark web, and have the goods delivered straight to their home address (Vaughan & Diver, 2018).

Why do students engage in academic doping?

There are a few reasons why students might think that taking performance-enhancing drugs is a good idea. The first is the pressure on students to succeed (Aikins, 2011; Vaughan & Diver, 2018). Another is that some students may simply want to experiment (Aikins, 2011). Aikins (2011) offers an excellent overview of the reasons students might take illicit drugs in general, and it’s important to note that there is no single reason why students might take drugs to help them perform better in exams or other learning tasks.

How prevalent is academic doping?

Aikins, Zhang, & McCabe (2017) summarize the results of previous studies on the use of non-medical use of prescription stimulants (NMUPs) which showed that anywhere from 7% to 35.5% of students have used prescription drugs for academic performance enhancement. There seems to be very little data about how many students are using the illegally made versions of these drugs. But in any case, these rates would probably be higher than most parents, faculty members or policy makers might suspect.

Do “smart drugs” really work?

There are users who post information about how well they believe these substances work for them. Having said that, Aikins, Zhang, & McCabe (2017) found that “there is little real world data proving that” students who engage in academic doping “experience any actual academic gains” (p. 231). So basically, students who self-medicate seem to think that these drugs will give them an advantage, but there’s not much in the way of actual data to support that idea.

The bottom line is that it is important for parents, educators and higher education policy makers to understand that academic doping is real and students can sometimes make poor choices because they feel pressure to succeed. It is up to us as educators to show we care about students’ well-being and health and to send a clear message that long-term success does not come in a pill bottle.


Aikins, R. (2011). A qualitative study of the perceptions and habits of prescription stimulant–using college students. Journal of College Student Development, 52(5). doi:10.1353/csd.2011.0064

Aikins, R., Zhang, X., & McCabe, S. E. (2017). Academic doping: Institutional policies regarding nonmedical use of prescription stimulants in U.S. higher education. Journal of Academic Ethics, 15(3), 229-243. doi:10.1007/s10805-017-9291-0

Asprey, D. (n.d.). Modafinil: The rise of smart drugs.  Retrieved from

Vaughan, R., & Diver, T. (2018). Exclusive: University students turn to dark web for performance enhancing ‘smart drugs’. iNews. Retrieved from


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the Werklund School of Education or the University of Calgary.

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