When education reform activist Desiree Martinez was considering colleges as a high school senior, one of her teachers tried to discourage her from applying to her dream college, UCLA.
Martinez would have been the first in her family to go to college, and she was already worried she wasn’t good enough to get in. That fear only intensified when a teacher told her that students “from her community” were better off starting at community college, rather than aiming higher and then dropping out.
“As one of the few in my family to make it to my senior year of high school and the first in my family to apply to college, I was devastated,” Martinez wrote for HuffPost. “I thought, maybe college isn’t for me. But I worked so hard.”
Martinez was eventually encouraged by another teacher who is also Latino to apply for UCLA, and she got in. But her story illustrates that while imposter syndrome may seem like an individual lack of confidence, its causes are systemic or even active attacks on an individual’s confidence.
Who belongs in higher ed classrooms?
Psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes first described what we now call imposter syndrome in 1978 as “the internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” While their original research focused specifically on high-achieving women, the fear of being found out as an intellectual fraud can be experienced by anyone.
This is particularly true with minoritized students. From an early age, they have been bombarded by messages about who does and does not belong in certain jobs, fields of studies, or classrooms, whether implicitly through depictions of college in the media, or explicitly as in the case of Desiree Martinez.
Kevin Cokley, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, has studied imposter syndrome in ethnically minoritized students, and found that feelings of being an imposter have a stronger negative link with mental health than minority-status stress on its own.
Imposter syndrome in college students is a systemic issue
As Dr. Delma Ramos of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Dr. Raquel Wright-Mair at Rowan University wrote for Diverse Education, “[I]mposter syndrome is a direct byproduct of systemic oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism), resulting from a system that fails certain individuals and not a failure of those individuals specifically.”
It is not enough to address manifestations of imposter syndrome in individual students; instructors need to take another look at how their entire classroom is designed to promote — or hinder — equity. Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey made a similar point in a Harvard Business Review article, arguing that the concept of imposter syndrome is often used in counterproductive ways to blame individuals for a seeming lack of confidence. The term is only helpful to the degree it helps illuminate systemic bias.
A 2021 survey from Digital Promise found that only 38 percent of instructors were regularly using activities to allay anxiety, stereotype threat, or imposter syndrome in the classroom. This indicates there is room for growth when it comes to creating a learning environment that’s inclusive and supportive for racially minoritized and poverty-affected students.
Addressing imposter syndrome in the college classroom
Start by learning to recognize the signs of imposter syndrome. Do students:
- Downplay successes or attribute their wins to luck instead of their own skill?
- Over-prepare for assignments or presentations?
- Exhibit signs of perfectionism?
- Avoid challenges or have low performance expectations of themselves?
The good news is that, as a recent study of imposter feelings found, imposter syndrome is less an inherent psychological vulnerability, and more a function of the context that the person is operating in. For example, it’s natural that early in a career or at transitional periods, feelings of insecurity will be heightened. That’s why gateway courses for new college students are so crucial. They are often designed in ways that students experience them as screens instead as doors opening up and inviting them into a field. Teaching practices and instructional design can help reduce the stress of imposter syndromes in minoritized students.
Minimize direct competition
Feelings of being an imposter are more likely to arise in classes where students are competitive with one another. Be mindful of practices that encourage competition, such as posting scores or having students race to complete a task. In online environments, breakout rooms, shared note taking, and other digital tools can help encourage collaboration instead of competition.
Improve representation and foster connection
One study of women completing STEM-related doctoral degrees found that participants who were in programs with higher percentages of other women were less likely to feel like imposters, and more likely to persist in the program.
While individual faculty may not be able to change the demographic makeup of the student body at their institutions, they can ensure that students see their identities represented positively in their syllabi. Communication tools such as classroom message boards can also help students find and connect with others in their program who share their identities.
An informal support network can be critical in helping minoritized students overcome imposter syndrome, Cokley found, because “it allows students to share their feelings, challenges, and insecurities in a safe and nonthreatening environment.”
Encourage students to see their wins
When students suffer from imposterism, they often minimize, discount, or forget their achievements. Cokley encourages students to keep a weekly or biweekly diary documenting their successes, as well as the times those successes have been acknowledged by others. This practice can help students see that they’re actually doing better than they’re giving themselves credit for.
A little bit of positive encouragement can make the difference between a student who chooses to enter a space despite imposter syndrome, and one who self-selects out, like Desiree Martinez considered doing when it came to applying for her dream college.
“Low-income students don’t need educators who discourage them from pursuing their dreams,” she wrote. “We are powerful, intelligent, and worthy of educators who support our wildest endeavors.”