Impulsivity and academic achievement in college students

Impulsivity and academic achievement in college students

Marcello Spinella

Impulsivity is a wide-ranging trait, affecting multiple areas of one’s life, including education. The educational process is a long-term, goal-oriented undertaking, which could be undermined by an impulsive tendency to act on immediate demands. Research in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) demonstrates that impulsivity reduces educational achievement, even after adjustments for IQ are made. This study examined the relationship in adults enrolled in an undergraduate college course using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11) and exam grades. An inverse relationship was demonstrated between academic grades and the BIS-11 total and factor scores, supporting previous research done in children. The neurobiological underpinnings of this relationship are tentative, but anatomical studies suggest a role for prefrontal-subcortical circuits that mediate self-control.


Impulsivity could be defined as a tendency to act hastily on one’s urges or on environmental demands. It connotes a shortsighted approach to situations, placing importance on immediate results, often at the expense of future accomplishments. Thus, impulsivity is typically antithetical to long-term, goal-oriented behaviors. It is a common feature of many psychiatric conditions, including bipolar disorder, suicide, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, and conduct disorder (van Heerigan, 2001, Chretien and Persinger, 2000, American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Swann et al., 2001).

Impulsivity is a wide-ranging personality trait, impacting upon several domains of an individual’s functioning, e.g. cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional. The pursuit of higher education is a long-term, goal-oriented behavior, in which both the long-term rewards (occupational opportunities, salary, prestige) and short-term rewards (grades) tend to be delayed. Thus, a tendency toward impulsivity would be anticipated to hinder academic performance by influencing multiple contributing factors. For example, greater impulse control would allow an individual to remain focused in lectures or studying sessions, where distractions with more immediate appeal are present. College students in particular have a variety of demands made on their time from a variety of sources, including academic, occupational, social, and recreational. Even within the context of learning and studying, greater impulse control would allow an individual to take a more strategic than haphazard approach to tasks.

Several studies have examined the relationship between impulsivity and academic achievement in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Children rated high on impulsivity have been demonstrated to achieve lower grades than their peers with low impulsivity ratings (Merrell and Tymms, 2001). This relationship has been found with objective measures of impulsivity as well, including verbal impulsivity (e.g. Meade, 1981). Further, impulsivity is consistently associated with lower grades and achievement scores, even when IQ is partialled out (Meade, 1981; Miyakawa, 2001). Little appears to have been done in this regard in the adult-age and college population. However, one study has demonstrated that the Executive Process Questionnaire, which measures metacognitive executive skills, related positively to college students’ grade point averages (Hall, 2001).

Thus, this study sought to examine self-ratings of impulsivity in relation to objective academic performance in college-level students.



The participants were 27 undergraduate students (18 female, 9 male) enrolled in a physiological psychology class, taught by one of the authors (M.S.). The course was an elective that counted as credit toward a bachelor’s degree. The students ranged in age from 19 to 42 years (mean 24.96 [+ or -] 5.3 years) and had between 12 and 16 years of education completed (mean 14.7 [+ or -] 0.83 years).

The study was approved by an institutional review board and all subjects read and agreed to a signed consent form, in accordance with Declaration of Helsinki. Subjects did not receive any form of financial compensation for participation. However, they did receive a small amount of credit (3 points added toward the final grade, not included in these analyses), for participation. They were given the option to participate in an alternate, equivalent study should they object, or decline participation altogether without penalty. All students present on the day of data collection elected to participate.


Three academic exams were administered, spaced at approximately equal intervals throughout the semester, and each covering approximately three to four chapters of the textbook. Each exam was comprised of 50 four-choice multiple choice questions, whose content was derived from both textbook and lecture notes. This study used the raw score of the first exam (E1) and the final grade (FG), which dropped the lowest of the three exam grades, comprising the total of the two higher exam grades.

While the FG reflects overall performance in the course, E1 was considered separately in this study since it reflects students’ performances without the benefit of feedback from prior exams. Raw scores on E1 ranged from 25 to 50 out of a possible 50 (mean 40.19 [+ or -] 5.86 points), and on FG ranged from 66 to 100 of a possible 100, with a mean of 87.00 [+ or -] 9.32.

The BIS-11 is a 30-item, self-rating scale that measures various aspects of impulsivity (Patton et al. 1995). Subscales of the BIS-11 assess non-planning (orientation toward the present rather than the future, BIS-np), motor impulsivity (or acting without thinking, BIS-m), and cognitive impulsivity (hasty decision making, BIS-c). Construct validity of the BIS-11 has been established with other behavioral and psychometric measures of impulsivity (Carrillo-de-la-Pena et al., 1993). Validity has also been established by studies of several clinical populations, including bulimia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder (Paul et al., 2002; Swannet al., 2001; Dougherty et al., 1999). Further, the behavioral tendencies measured by the BIS-11 have been demonstrated to relate to brain structure in a neuroimaging study (Hoptman et al., 2002). Microstructure of white matter in the right inferior frontal lobe in subjects with schizophrenia was shown to relate to BIS-11 scores.

Scores were recorded from the total score and three subscales of the BIS-11: BIS-T (range 43-87, mean 61.70 [+ or -] 12.34), BIS-np (range 17-33, mean 22.93 [+ or -] 4.53), BIS-m (range 16-34, mean 22.96 [+ or -] 5.21), and BIS-c (range 8-28, mean 15.81 [+ or -] 4.48).


Partial correlations were performed between measures of educational achievement (i.e. E1 and FG) the BIS (BIS-T and BIS subscales), controlling for the influences of age, sex, and education (See Table 1). Significant negative correlation coefficients were obtained between E1 and BIS-T, BIS-np, and BIS-m. Similarly, significant negative correlation coefficients were obtained between FG and BIS-T, as well as all subscales of the BIS.

The demographic variables of age, sex, and education completed did not correlate significantly with either measure of academic performance in this sample. However, E1 did correlate positively with FG (r = 0.79, p < 0.001). As might be anticipated from psychometric studies of the BIS-11, all three subscales intercorrelated significantly: BIS-np correlated with BIS-m (r = 0.84, p < 0.001), BIS-np correlated with BIS-c (r = 0.55, p = 0.003), and BIS-m correlated with BIS-c (r = 0.49, p = 0.01).


This study demonstrates an inverse relationship between serf-ratings of impulsivity and objective academic performance in a college course, supporting previous research done in children with ADHD. The relationships were consistently in the predicted direction, with lower levels of impulsivity associated with higher grades, even after adjustments were made to remove the influences of age, sex, and years of education. The relationship between impulsivity and educational achievement held true for different aspects of impulsivity, including non-planning, cognitive impulsivity, and even motor impulsivity. The correlations obtained were sizable, with impulsivity rating explaining between 20% and 38% of the variance in grades. While the relationship between E1 and BIS-c (cognitive impulsivity) did not quite reach significance, its direction was consistent with the other correlations that were predicted and obtained. It is possible that a larger sample would bear this correlation as well.

The consistent relationship of the BIS-11 subscales with measures of achievement are not entirely surprising given the demonstrated impact of impulsivity on education in previous studies in younger populations. However, this does reinforce the pervasive nature of impulsivity, since several diverse behaviors covered in the items of the BIS-11, most of which extend beyond academic contexts. It should be cautioned that this study only represents a small and limited sample, so the results warrant replication with more diverse samples and expansion into other aspects of education. For example, in addition to academic performance, impulsivity ratings might be compared to other parameters such as time needed for completion of a degree, the number of courses added and then dropped, or various studying habits.

The correlational methodology of this study does not allow for any deeper causal explanations for the reasons behind a relationship between impulsivity and academic achievement. However, the demonstration that BIS-11 scores correlate with right inferior frontal white matter microstructure does support a possible prefrontal basis. Impulsivity has consistently been associated with the functioning of prefrontal cortex and associated subcortical structures (e.g. basal ganglia, mediodorsal thalamus) (Chow, 2000; Fallgatter and Herrmann, 2001; Cardinal et al., 2001). Thus, it is likely that normal variations in the structure and function of these systems may underlie variations in performance of tasks where impulsivity contributes, such as educational achievement (e.g. Chretien and Persinger, 2000). Further research using validated neuropsychological tests with demonstrated sensitivity to prefrontal-subcortical function would strengthen the association between educational achievement and it’s neurobiological underpinnings. Whatever results are obtained, they will help educators form a more integrated concept of the educational process, from cognitive, behavioral, and biological perspectives.

This line of research may suggest directions for educators. Cognitive training programs that emphasize executive, metacognitive strategies may be fruitful in improving students’ academic performance (Bornas and Servera, 1992). It was shown in 5th and 6th grade children that training metacognitive strategies produced short-term improvements in academic achievement, and sustained improvements in impulsivity.

Table 1

Partial Correlations Between BIS-11 scores and Exam Grades Controlling

for Age, Sex, and Years of Education (n=27)


BIS-T r -0.50 -0.61

p 0.01 0.001

BIS-np r -0.50 -0.59

p 0.01 0.003

BIS-m r -0.45 -0.51

p 0.03 0.01

BIS-c r -0.35 -0.50

p n.s. 0.01

Abbreviations: BIS-T BIS-11 score, BIS-np non-planning factor,

BIS-m motor impulsivity factor, BIS-c cognitive impulsivity

factor, E1 Grade for the first exam, FG final grade,

n.s. not significant.


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