When Kirstie McAllum left her native New Zealand for an academic posting with the University of Montreal’s school of communications four years ago, she immediately noticed some key cultural differences between her previous Kiwi students and her new North American ones.
“I was absolutely thrilled with my students. They were very critical and analytical thinkers, clearly very smart,” she recalls. But their talent had a flipside: it did not come with a corresponding degree of confidence. “I saw that they had intense needs. They wanted five pages of instructions for their assignments. The performance-related pressure that they felt was very intense.”
What McAllum’s new students were feeling was a form of impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon: a psychological pattern in which people doubt their own abilities and accomplishments, however formidable they may be, and to be in constant fear that they will be exposed as a fraud. It’s a phenomenon many faculty are familiar with, not only in students but in their peers and themselves.
The term was coined in 1978 by professors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, to describe the psychological state of high-achieving women in the workforce. But the term has since entered the popular lexicon as a descriptor for any person’s feelings of inadequacy and the sense that they are “faking it.”
On the surface, college campuses seem an unlikely place for impostor syndrome to flourish. The student experience is, after all, replete with feedback and external validation: exam results, essay grades and comments, as well as formative assessments that let students know how they’re doing and give them time and opportunity to shift course if necessary. For students who demonstrate consistent success, such feedback ought to alleviate any sense of imposture or fraudulence. But as McAllum says, “all the external affirmation we provide isn’t having an impact.”
No one is immune to impostor syndrome’s effects. Research has shown that impostor syndrome is more prevalent among women and minority students. Mature students who are arriving at college for the first time, or returning to college after many years away, are also prone to the sense that they don’t belong (it may even have been a sense of impostor syndrome in their careers that led them back to campus in the first place.) Millennials, faced with constant comparisons to friends’ accomplishments on social media, can be especially affected.
And yet, those who suffer from impostor syndrome don’t resort to desperate measures in their studies. In a 2005 study out of DePaul University, students who reported impostor tendencies also reported low incidence of cheating and plagiarism, while students without impostor syndrome were more likely to engage in such behaviors. Impostor syndrome, it seems, causes people to double down on their studies.
Despite this, impostor syndrome can get in the way of student achievement and prevent people from realizing their full potential. There are several things you can to do try to counteract those feelings within your class—some obvious, others apparently counterintuitive.
1. Remind students they belong
McAllum has adopted a few in-class techniques to address impostor syndrome in her students. She typically begins a course by assuring all her students that they deserve to be there, because they have demonstrated some specific academic capabilities, and that this course will move them forward in their understanding.
She also includes, in all her teaching materials, a picture of a bungee instructor pushing a jumper off a bridge. “I tell them, ‘This is what I am going to do to you in this course. You’re going to fall and bounce back up and search for your footing, and it’s both frightening and exhilarating.’”
2. Give them freedom: don’t hover over them
McAllum says impostor syndrome’s impact on the classroom manifests as an intense need for certainty and clarity. But she cautions her fellow professors against trying too hard to meet those needs. “I remember the time I gave my students an assignment, and after I posted it, I told a colleague that I was worried I hadn’t given them enough instruction,” she recalls. “And my friend replied, ‘Kirstie, they’re adult learners.’ That’s when I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m becoming a helicopter professor!’ It’s important to find ways of being responsive to what students are working on, and to their feelings, without holding their hands.”
3. Embrace risk
Alison Cook-Sather, a professor of education at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College and the Director of its Teaching and Learning Institute, agrees. In her search for the right balance, she has focused on turning her classroom into a “brave space”—rather than a “safe space”—where students are encouraged to open up and take risks in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
“In the classroom, I think a ‘safe space’ is a lie,” says Cook-Sather. “You can’t create a safe space if you want people to be learning. There has to be risk, challenge, fear and discomfort.” The brave-space concept introduces all those elements into the classroom setting openly and deliberately, setting a specific goal for the tone of discussion. And while it takes a fair amount of effort early in the course to establish that tone, Cook-Sather says, it pays off over the course of the semester. “In a brave space people can share their fears and vulnerabilities, and when people realize that everyone has them, it counteracts impostor syndrome.”
4. Make yourself scarce
While McAllum appreciates that technology makes faculty more accessible to students, from emails to weekend video-chat office hours, she also cautions against being too available—it can be detrimental to student independence. “I always tell my students I don’t answer email on the weekends, no matter when your assignment is due.”
Instead, McAllum prefers to give her students resources they can turn to on their own. “I give my students prior examples of successful student work, but widely divergent examples,” she says. “That way, they see that there are many different pathways to success. It gives them the freedom to do their own thing.”