Assessing the ill effects of finals on willing subjects, teachers alike

Due to stress and lack of sleep, students often become ill during finals week. In an effort to find a solution to this ongoing problem, I recently conducted a study during final-exam week at Mesa State College. We tested the use of placebos, extra-strength placebos and generic placebos as final-exam disease preventatives.

The placebos tested all contained the active ingredient CHOThe placebos and extra-strength placebos were obtained through a classified ad in The National Enquirer. The generic placebos were obtained from City Market from the sugar aisle under the label “Sugar Cube.”

All pills were transferred to old, leftover, empty prescription bottles. The old labels were removed and no markings were left except the gross, sticky stuff that never comes off of those things. Each bottle was then hand encoded with the labels “p,” “esp” and “gp” to disguise the contents. This code was given to a retiring colleague, Forbes Davidson, while we waited for the conclusion of the trial.

Several students were recruited to evaluate the effectiveness of the pills. They were promised one letter grade improvement on their Anatomy and Physiology course for participation. Seventy-one people volunteered (the entire class), but eventually only seven were chosen. The rest were already sick. Those participating appeared healthy and rested at the beginning of the study, with the exception of Ashley, who appeared to be slightly hungover.

The subjects were supplied the pills at no cost to themselves. However, to make the test more real, they were asked to imagine that they were paying $5 per pill for the placebo, $10 for the extra-strength placebos and $1 for the generic placebos. At the end of the study three students reported that they had not actually done this. They thought it was all supposed to be free under the new medical care plan.

Subjects were asked to take three pills a day, one with each meal, for one week prior to finals and throughout finals week. This created some experimental design problems because I forgot that college students never eat three meals a day: Sometimes it’s one, sometimes seven. Some subjects took pills with all their meals and some only took them when they were sober. Another confusing variable was that several students counted Cokes and candy bars as meals.

One subject, taking the generic placebo, dropped out of the study when he discovered he was flunking no matter whether he took his finals or not. Another subject withdrew from the study claiming the placebos caused insomnia, nervous tics, sweaty hands, dry mouth and headaches. I suggested she try putting her hands in her mouth and continue with the study. She suggested I could do something else.

At the end of the study, all students reported that they thought the extra-strength placebos were the most effective, followed by the placebo, and then the generic placebos. In fact, they estimated that the generic placebo was only half as effective as the extra-strength placebo. However, since the generic placebos were the most pleasant to take, and because of the price differential, most thought they would just double the dosage on the generic compound to bring their potency up to the level of the other pills.

In contrast to the self-reporting data referred to above, it should be noted that all participants were still sick by the end of finals week. This makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of administering placebos as a disease-prevention strategy.

Some side effects were reported, such as gastrointestinal distress and weight gain. However, the test was terminated before those claims could be substantiated. To evaluate these claims would require a more controlled trial as it pertains to diet, drink and other extra-curricular activities.

In conclusion, we can report that finals week is stressful for teachers as well as students. It is recommended that college professors not be held accountable for newspaper columns during this time of the year.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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