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Better Wellness = Better Grades

Research assistant Mark Miller ’15 notes that he’s a good example of how...
Research assistant Mark Miller ’15 notes that he’s a good example of how well the survey works: “I have a high GPA and I don’t score badly on the report card,” he says.

Do students who live a healthy lifestyle do better in school? You bet. Marjorie Droppa, assistant professor in Keene State’s Health Science Department, has long been interested in the connection between “wellness behaviors” of college students—including physical and emotional fitness and two areas specific to the age group, sexual activity and use of alcohol and drugs—and their academic performance. For her PhD dissertation, she developed the College Wellness Survey, an anonymous online assessment, and tested it on students at a handful of schools, including Keene State and Texas A&M.

The students who participated in the test responded to a variety of questions about their exercise habits, how frequently they drink alcoholic beverages, whether and how often they engage in sexual activity, and more, and then reported their grade-point averages. That produced a lot of interesting information, not the least of which was that the students, having filled out the survey, wanted feedback. How are we doing? they wanted to know. And if we’re not doing so well, where can we get help?

Droppa developed a more refined survey, the Wellness Report Card, which could report back to the survey-takers, but she realized she didn’t have the computer expertise to make that reporting happen online. “I went to Keene State’s computer science faculty,” she says, “and said, ‘I need help!’ They suggested involving computer science students in this as well.”

In stepped Shari Bemis and Wei Lu of the Computer Science Department, along with research assistants Nathan Heath ’14, who created the survey website in 2012, while a student, and Mark Miller ’15, a computer science major, who has been doing upkeep and management on the website.

“We ask about 30 questions on the survey,” says Miller, “and we can accurately predict your GPA from that.” Miller has given presentations on the project at both Keene State’s Academic Excellence Conference and a conference of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, and is listed as an author on a paper written by the team.

Begin pull-quote…We ask about 30 questions on the survey, and we can accurately predict your GPA from that. …end pull-quote
– Mark Miller

The Wellness Report Card has been tested on students at the University of North Dakota. The students who participate are given an overall wellness grade – A, B, or C – as well as a grade in each wellness dimension (physical, emotional, drug and alcohol use, and sexual activity). Those who want to improve their grade in any category can find a list of local resources on the website including their university counseling center, fitness centers, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and more.

And that gives them a good shot at improving their academic grades as well, says Lu. “The students give us their wellness activities, and we can then tell the students what their GPA would probably be – say, from between 3.5 to 4.0 or 3.0 to 3.5 or under 3.0. Then we can give students some suggestions in terms of how to improve their wellness behaviors on campus in order to achieve a better academic performance,” says Lu.

Currently being tested on community college students in Iowa, the Wellness Report Card has far-reaching implications for colleges and universities. Each individual survey is anonymous, but the data for a particular group of students can be aggregated and reported to college officials. If, say, an incoming freshman class scores poorly in alcohol and drug behaviors, then the school can place a special emphasis on education and interventions for those behaviors.

“You can have very bright students who are academically well prepared, but if they have wellness behaviors that can hurt them, they are more likely to not only perform poorly in the classroom but to drop out,” notes Droppa. “So it’s really crucial that we focus not just on the students one-dimensionally, but that we focus on them as a total person, understanding that how they grew up, where they came from, what they’re dealing with, and how they deal with it, is as important if not more important than how they are graded on their tests. Especially important is to target the first-years, when they are at the most vulnerable.”