Substance Abuse
Implications for Learning

A young man in a classroom with his head lying on his desk with eyes closed.

Statistics complied by Thomas (2012) for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse show that Canadian students in postsecondary environments drink more alcohol than their same age peers who are not in school. According to Carr (2009), students who abuse substances can cause serious problems for themselves and for those around them. Experimentation with (and occasional overuse of) alcohol and drugs are a common part of many people’s college or university experience. Some students, however, will develop a dependency or an addiction to alcohol or another substance that will jeopardize their academic success and can create delays in finishing, or even dropping out from, postsecondary studies.1

According to Arria et al. (2013), adverse consequences of substance abuse can continue even after graduation, with students who used drugs in college or university being more likely to be unemployed than their non drug-using fellow graduates. Issues that may emerge include excessive absenteeism, an inability to focus on completing assignments, a diminished ability to concentrate, lack of initiative, moodiness, and showing up to classes or other activities while under the influence of substances. Having an inebriated individual in class can be very disruptive and distracting to other students. While substance abuse is difficult to prove (and other issues, such as a student trying a new medication, can mimic inebriation), there may come times when an instructor needs to address the issue of bizarre behaviour in order to maintain a positive learning environment for all.

Note: Most Disability Services Offices (DSO) do not deal with cases of substance abuse as a matter of routine; however, substance abuse concerns may arise in isolation or in conjunction with another disability. If such concerns come to your attention, please contact your campus counselling service or DSO for guidance.


The following recommendations are suggestions only and should not be considered comprehensive or exhaustive, nor will all recommendations listed be advisable in all cases. Other recommendations may be implemented based on the individual needs of each student as recommended by your campus counselling service or other professionals.

Common Characteristics of a Student with Chronic with Substance Abuse Suggestions
Repeated absences or difficulty getting work done. Students suspected of abusing substances should be offered assistance but should also be held to the same expectations as their non-substance abusing peers. All students must be engaged with compassion, but academic personnel must ensure that their actions do not facilitate or enable a continuing substance abuse problem.
Body odour, poor hygiene. Have a direct discussion with the student about appropriate hygiene for a learning environment.
Being inattentive or "zoned out." Try to actively engage the student in conversations about class material.
Bloodshot eyes. Extreme moodiness. Ask student about preparation for class. Express concerns about student appearance and/or behaviour. Consider a referral to campus counselling personnel.
  • 1. Homel, Thompson, and Leadbeater (2014).