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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Life context of pharmacological academic performance enhancement among university students – a qualitative approach

Elisabeth Hildt1*, Klaus Lieb2 and Andreas Günter Franke2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Jakob Welder-Weg 18, D – 55099 Mainz, Germany

2 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Medical Centre, Untere Zahlbacher Str. 8, D – 55131 Mainz, Germany

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:23  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-23

Published: 7 March 2014



Academic performance enhancement or cognitive enhancement (CE) via stimulant drug use has received increasing attention. The question remains, however, whether CE solely represents the use of drugs for achieving better academic or workplace results or whether CE also serves various other purposes. The aim of this study was to put the phenomenon of pharmacological academic performance enhancement via prescription and illicit (psycho-) stimulant use (Amphetamines, Methylphenidate) among university students into a broader context. Specifically, we wanted to further understand students’ experiences, the effects of use on students and other factors, such as pressure to perform in their academic and private lives.


A sample of 18 healthy university students reporting the non-medical use of prescription and illicit stimulants for academic performance enhancement was interviewed in a face-to-face setting. The leading questions were related to the situations and context in which the students considered the non-medical use of stimulants.


Based on the resultant transcript, two independent raters identified six categories relating to the life context of stimulant use for academic performance enhancement: Context of stimulant use beyond academic performance enhancement, Subjective experience of enhancement, Timing of consumption, Objective academic results, Side effects, Pressure to perform.


The answers reveal that academic performance enhancement through the use of stimulants is not an isolated phenomenon that solely aims at enhancing cognition to achieve better academic results but that the multifaceted life context in which it is embedded is of crucial relevance. The participants not only considered the stimulants advantageous for enhancing academic performance, but also for leading an active life with a suitable balance between studying and time off. The most common reasons given for stimulant use were to maximize time, to increase motivation and to cope with memorizing. According to the interviews, there is a considerable discrepancy between subjective experiences and objective academic results achieved.

Cognitive enhancement; Academic performance enhancement; Stimulants; Ethics; Attitudes; Life impact; University students