The Big Question: “Is it fair for students to use smart drugs during assessments?”

Jessica Farrugia Sharples argues YES…

The promise of a ‘smart drug’, a drug to enhance your brain power, increasing concentration and memory, seems too good to be true. It’s a tantalising idea; a drug that would suddenly open your eyes to a more complex understanding of the world, brain whirring with equations and astrophysics and each sensation intensified, without the gritty association to illegal stimulant drugs. Sadly, the actual effects of these ‘smart drugs’, or nootropics, are far from being this advanced.

Meant for people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, several forms of nootropics are already being experimented with. Scientists view the effects of these drugs as completely natural and believe that they should be legalised; several prominent ethicists and neuroscientists recently published a study entitled ‘Towards a responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.’ At the moment, however, many of the grand claims of the cognitive enhancing drugs have not been formally tested and scientists have proven that the same effects can be achieved in other ways that don’t involve the drugs.  Increased levels of oxygen to the brain, the release of ‘happy-hormones’, and increased energy, can all be achieved by exercise, eating carbohydrates and a good night’s sleep. Other naturally stimulating effects on brain function have been attributed to vitamin B and omega 3. Perhaps, in the future these drugs may have developed enough to enable humans to work for 40 hours straight while multi-tasking and pregnant, which is when it becomes a whole other ethical and moral argument.

At this point in time, these well-marketed ‘smart drugs’ are selling to lazy American students looking for a shortcut. To give yourself the best chance with no fear of any dodgy side effects, getting some rigorous exercise in your day (take that any way you like) and tucking yourself in bed at a normal hour will give you the best chance of achieving full potential. These drugs appear to be, at the moment, little more than a waste of money and a projection of students’ fantasies.


Samantha Owen argues NO…

The question is rather an interesting one, as it asks not whether ‘smart drugs’ work or whether they are safe but whether or not they are fair. Fairness is a relatively abstract concept and is one that is hard to quantify. But in this circumstance, the simplest deduction is that everybody should be given equal opportunities for success.

If we were to compare drugs which aid intellectual improvement with those that alter physical performance, we could clearly suggest that those taking drugs have an unfair advantage over those that are not. Performance enhancing drugs have been banned in sport for a reason ? they work in the favour of the drug-fuelled athlete.  If two students are sitting the exact same exam, having had the same amount of teaching, but one revised using smart drugs and one didn’t and it resulted in the drug-induced student outperforming the normal student, then of course it is unfair.

One could, of course, argue that if these smart drugs were made legal, and were readily available then it would become the student’s choice whether they sought the advantage or not, and therefore the circumstances are fair. But as that is not the case, smart drugs are only attainable to those that have the right connections. This means that only students with enough money or with friends on ADHD medicine can score these intellectual highs and attain this unfair advantage over their peers.

To be fair, the only people desperate enough to seek this quick-fix are those that haven’t taken university seriously thus far, so I cannot imagine they’ll care a great deal about whether it’s fair or not anyway.


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8 Comments on this post.
  • Anon
    9 May 2012 at 23:25
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    Try and dispell the myth if you like but drugs like medathonal do increase your concentration and work ethic, they don’t make you smarter, but they help you get things done. Ethics aside; they work.

  • Scarlet
    12 May 2012 at 20:15
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    “Performance enhancing drugs have been banned in sport for a reason ? they work in the favour of the drug-fuelled athlete,” to the detriment of other competitors. That’s why its banned in sport, because your success is to the detriment of other competitors. If I get 70% in an exam (provided it wasn’t uber hard or scaled) then I’m not really harming anyone else am I?

    Also fairness is not so much an abstract concept than a relative one, thus what might be fair to you, will not be the same for everyone else.

    Both arguments also make sweeping statements about the people who use smart drugs.

  • Dave J
    14 May 2012 at 12:02
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    Scarlet, your exam results don’t exist in a vacuum – finding employment after university (especially in the current economic climate) is a zero-sum game. It’s the same reason why lying on your CV harms others – because you might deny somebody else a job that would otherwise have been theirs.

    But hey, whatever helps you sleep at night (Nytol, perhaps?)

  • Dave J
    14 May 2012 at 12:07
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    For future, it would have been interesting to have seen an argument on whether ‘in principle’ students should be able to use smart drugs. Ie – ignoring whether or not they work, IF smart drugs did give a measurable advantage to somebody, would it be fair to use them? I suspect that Jessica’s answer to that would be no.

    Obviously once smart drugs are discussed, then you can go onto the Deus Ex-type stuff where you ask whether people without implants of any sort should be allowed to compete on a level playing field with people without these implants, not just in the case of that South African runner (can’t remember his name off the top of my head) with blades for legs, but also what if you could have a device placed in your brain that (say) increased your reaction times – would it be fair for them to be a Formula 1 racing driver? What if we’re not just talking about sport – would it be fair for somebody with such an implant to run for political positions?

  • oscarwilliams
    14 May 2012 at 12:14
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    @Scarlet, you’re right that university exams aren’t competitions, but the job market is. Two undergrads are teetering on the brink of a classification boundary. The first takes performance enhancing drugs and makes the grade; the second doesn’t and falls just shy of the mark. They both apply for the same grad scheme, interview well and are otherwise indivisible on paper. The former gets the job. It’s not an impossible scenario.

  • oscarwilliams
    14 May 2012 at 12:16
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    Dave, you beat me to it.

  • Dave J
    14 May 2012 at 12:42
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    I have no life.

  • seth
    14 May 2012 at 18:00
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    I can’t believe this is still considered controversial. Smart drugs are as much a part of students life as coffee or beer. The only controversy is that smart drugs are still labelled as prescription ADD/ADHD medication. Smart Drugs have become so popular that companies are beginning to see the light, and are now making over the counter supplements that are being called the Adderall Alternative.

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