Literature on College Student Drinking

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The purpose of this study was to seek comprehension of the contours of the lives of college students who abstain from drinking alcohol. Specifically, I explored the motivations, behaviors, and outcomes related to their choice not to drink. To address the purpose of the current study, I chose the following methods.
Since little is known about college abstainers and their related motivations, behaviors, and outcomes, I conducted focus groups in an effort to discover broadly the full range of possible participant responses. In addition, I used focus groups so the participants could build upon each other’s answers and encourage each other to remember things they might have forgotten if answering the questions in individual interviews. To elicit responses that would illustrate the maximum breadth and depth of information from the focus groups, I asked the participants questions related to the following research questions:

  1. What are abstainers’ motivations for abstaining?
  2. What behaviors do abstainers exhibit to keep them from drinking?
  3. What social behaviors do abstainers exhibit?
  4. What are the outcomes of abstaining?

Sample Selection

The population used for this study consisted of undergraduate students who abstained from using alcohol at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), a large, land-grant institution enrolling approximately 25,600 students, with 21,760 being undergraduates. Of the undergraduates, approximately 59% were male and 41% were female, with the undergraduate population consisting of 23% freshmen, 25% sophomores 23% juniors, and 29% seniors (Virginia Tech, 2000). Through previous surveys conducted on the undergraduate student population, it was known that approximately 17% of the students self-reported abstaining from drinking alcohol during the 30 days prior to the survey (Clarke & Thompson, 2001).
Due to the nature of this study, I selected only one sample. The sample consisted of students who met the criteria of having abstained from drinking alcohol for a period of at least one year prior to the study, save one exception. Students who drank alcohol in minimal quantities (one to two drinks per occasion or less) for special religious or cultural celebrations on infrequent occasions (less than six times per year) were defined as abstainers and were included in this study.
I recruited 48 undergraduate students who identified themselves as abstainers to participate in the present study. Initially, 20 students who participated in the Wellness Environment for Living and Learning (W.E.L.L.), an on-campus learning community located in a residence hall, were selected as possible participants for this study. I recruited the W.E.L.L. residents first because they signed a pledge at the beginning of the year stating that they would not possess or use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs within the W.E.L.L. community. They also applied for admission into the program, meaning they fully understood the environment in which they were volunteering to live. Due to the design of the W.E.L.L., its residents were likely to have met the criteria for participation.
I first contacted an administrator in the Department of Residential and Dining Programs (RDP) who was responsible for the W.E.L.L. From this administrator, I obtained a list of the W.E.L.L. resident advisors (paraprofessional student staff who work for RDP in the W.E.L.L.). The W.E.L.L. resident advisors keep an e-mail list of all the residents on their halls. Second, I contacted the W.E.L.L. resident advisors via e-mail, explaining the nature of the study and asking them to forward a subsequent e-mail from me about the study to their residents (see Appendix B). Third, I sent an e-mail message to the W.E.L.L. resident advisors, which they in turn forwarded to their residents to solicit them for the study. The e-mail described the requirements of participation in the study, the time slots for the focus groups, cash compensation for participation in the study ($15.00), the definition of abstention, and contact information (see Appendix C).
Through the e-mail to the W.E.L.L. residents, I asked them to contact me via telephone to sign up for the study. Potential participants began contacting me by phone and by e-mail on the same day my e-mail went out. As outlined in my procedures, I wanted to speak with each potential participant on the phone to conduct a brief screening interview and record his or her answers (see Appendix D). If they qualified, I immediately signed them up for a focus group session and asked them to refer any other students who might qualify. When potential participants called, I initially screened them for the study over the telephone. I used telephone screening for the following reasons: (a) to facilitate the quick collection of demographic information about the participants, (b) to re-iterate the definition of abstention, (c) to ascertain through alternate questions if the possible participants met my definition of abstention, and (d) to solicit additional referrals for the study from participants (Appendix D). From the individuals who contacted me, I accepted for participation the first 20 who met the abstainer definition. The W.E.L.L. participation was capped at 20 to keep the study from being biased by the experiences reported by W.E.L.L. residents who may not be representative of the overall experiences of abstainers attending Virginia Tech. W.E.L.L. residents who responded after I chose the 20 participants were informed that the study was closed for W.E.L.L. participants, but that the study was still open for other abstainers.
During the initial screening telephone conversation, I signed up the participants for a focus group session. As a follow-up, I sent each chosen participant an e-mail message confirming the agreement to participate, reminding about the $15.00 incentive for finishing the study; and reminding them about the date, time, and location of their focus group session (see Appendix E).
In an effort not to bias the study unnecessarily by only selecting abstainers who lived in the W.E.L.L., I also contacted abstainers who lived outside the W.E.L.L. Initially, I used referrals gained from the W.E.L.L. residents during the telephone screening interviews. The e-mail message had the same basic content as the initial e-mail to the W.E.L.L. residents (see Appendix C for a similar example). Once referred participants called me, I pre-screened them over the telephone with the same procedure used for the W.E.L.L. residents (see Appendix D). I accepted referred participants who met the definition of abstainer at the conclusion of their telephone interview. Those not accepted into the study were also informed at the conclusion of their interview.
also solicited other on-campus and off-campus participants outside of the W.E.L.L. residents and their referrals. Just as I did with the W.E.L.L. residents, I repeated this process by sending out e-mail announcements to the Newman Community (Catholic campus ministry) list-serv and to the Virginia Tech international student list-serv (see Appendix C for a similar example). For similar reasons related to not biasing my study, I capped international student participation at a target of six participants. To gain additional participants from off campus, I posted fliers (see Appendix G) in the public posting areas of most academic buildings around campus and in the public posting areas of the apartment buildings in three off-campus apartment complexes predominantly occupied by students.
The focus groups were capped at a maximum of 8 participants each. Since I was not trying to create focus groups that were representative of any demographic group from Virginia Tech, I let the participants choose which group they wanted to participate. However, I did have some criteria I applied in an attempt to not overweight any one group too heavily with individuals from one similar demographic group. I tried to keep groups composed of 50% or less W.E.L.L. residents. I also tried to only allow two or three individuals who knew each other or who were referred by each other to sign up for the same focus group. With those loose demographic criteria in place for focus group formation, I started cutting off focus groups at six individuals. This allowed me to spread participants out so that I could fill some of the less popular dates and times to get minimum numbers for all focus groups. I also tried to get people to fill up focus groups that occurred on earlier dates first, again, so they would be filled in time. After most groups were filled with at least six individuals, I removed the cap and let people again sign up for the focus group of their choice.
I continued soliciting referrals using the same contact and screening procedures until all available time slots were filled. With this basic format for recruiting my focus group participants, I eventually signed up 58 potential participants. Finally, I contacted all the focus group participants via e-mail one final time 24 hours prior to the focus groups. The e-mail contained a reminder about their participation, a reminder about their financial compensation, and the time and location of their focus group session (see Appendix H).


I developed a focus group protocol for the purposes of this study using direct consultation with student affairs professionals at the institution where the study was conducted. These professionals were familiar with focus group techniques and had primary job responsibilities related to research and assessment.
To elicit responses that answered the research questions posed in this study, the protocol consisted of a list of questions and related follow-up questions. I divided the protocol into the following four sections related to the students’ abstention: (a) motivations, (b) behaviors exhibited to keep from drinking alcohol, (c) social behaviors, and (d) outcomes. The protocol sections corresponded to the research questions. See Appendix A for an example of the full set of interview questions used with the interview protocol.
Through Section One of the protocol, I sought to discover the motivations that students had for abstaining. I asked the participants to talk about why they decided not to drink and any specific experiences that contributed to their decision not to drink.
In Section Two of the protocol, I addressed the behaviors abstainers exhibited to keep from drinking alcohol. I asked the participants to talk about what they did to keep from drinking alcohol, what techniques they used when around alcohol to keep from drinking, and what they did to relieve stress.
I addressed the social behaviors of abstainers in Section Three. Specifically, I asked participants about their group of friends, their social activities, and the nature of any peer pressure they felt to drink.
Through Section Four of the protocol, I addressed the positive and negative outcomes related to abstention. I asked the participants to talk about what areas of their life were positively or negatively affected by not drinking and how these areas were affected.
I conducted a pilot focus group session to ascertain whether the protocol elicited that addressed the research questions posed in the current study. I tape-recorded the session and transcribed that recording. After the initial pilot group session, I collaborated with one of the professional consultants who initially helped me develop the protocol; together, we analyzed the transcripts to see if the protocol was appropriate for my research questions. We made adjustments in the focus group protocol based upon our analysis.
The final focus group question protocol consisted of four sections: (a) motivations, (b) behaviors exhibited to keep from drinking alcohol, (c) social behaviors, and (d) outcomes (see Appendix A). There were a total of 32 questions in the protocol with 13 questions in the motivation section, 4 questions in the behaviors exhibited to keep from drinking section, and 11 questions in the social behaviors section, and 4 questions in the outcomes section. I designed the focus group sessions to last for 90 minutes.

Data Collection Procedures

Before collecting any data, I sought approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Research Involving Human Subjects at the campus where the study was conducted. Once I obtained IRB approval for the present study, I commenced the data collection phase.
First, to obtain the best possible room and furniture layout for data collection for the current project, I sought out a normally quiet room with a large conference table and moveable chairs. I placed the chairs around the perimeter of the table in a horseshoe shape. This design allowed the members see and interact with each other, while being easily audiotaped during their focus group sessions.
Second, I obtained high quality tape recording equipment. I placed the tape recorder in the center of the table to allow for maximum voice pickup. Before any of the sessions commenced, I tested the tape recording equipment in the room in which they would be used. This ensured that the equipment worked and that it would adequately capture the desired information given the room set-up.
In the focus group sessions, I solicited participant responses using my focus group protocol. The protocol included the following sections: introduction, setting the tone, participant consent, questions and related follow-up questions, brief summary of focus group answers and preliminary themes, participant response to brief summary, closing, money distribution, and researcher notes and wrap-up. For an example of the full focus group protocol, see Appendix A.
Before the participants arrived at the focus group session, I made folding tabletop nametags for each of the participants (with only the first name written). As the participants entered the room, I greeted them, asked them to pick up their nametags, and had them pick a chair at the table. Once all of the participants entered the room and were seated, I started the introductions.
I briefly introduced myself to the focus group, stating my qualifications and affiliations. Next, I briefly described the focus group process. Then, I asked participants to identify themselves by first name. I also gave them the opportunity to reveal any other personal information about themselves they felt comfortable telling the group.
For the focus groups to have an open and honest exchange, it was necessary for me to set the appropriate tone. First, I reviewed the purpose and goals of the focus group session. Second, I reviewed the general format of the focus group. By doing this, I illustrated to the participants that the questions would be asked to the group, giving each participant a chance to respond.
Additionally, I reviewed the ground rules for participation, such as not putting each other down, not dominating, being respectful, and one person talking at a time. While reviewing the format, I attempted to set the mood through a positive, sincere, and upbeat attitude.

List of Appendices
Chapter 1 Introduction
Purpose of the Study
Research Questions
Significance of the Study
Delimitations and Limitations
Organization of the Study
Chapter 2 Literature Review
Literature on College Student Drinking
Motivations for Drinking
The Environment
Social Fears and Motivations
Attitudes and Perceptions
Religious Influence
Behaviors of Drinkers
Social Environment of Drinkers
Chapter 3 Methodology 
Sample Selection
Data Analysis Procedures
Chapter 4 Results
The Story of My Experience with the Focus Groups
Focus Group Location: Cranwell International Center
Protocol Section One: Motivations for Abstention
Protocol Section Four: Outcomes of Abstention
Specific Group and Individual Demographics
Participant Responses.
Data and Participant Responses
Abstainers Experience Many Positive Outcomes
Chapter 5 Discussion 
The Findings as They Relate to the Research Questions
Research Question One: Deeper Meanings From the Results
Spiritual and Religious Influence
Negative Experiences

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