The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

Impostor Phenomenon in the Classroom

Many faculty and students report experiencing Impostor Phenomenon, or feelings of self-doubt about their accomplishments and abilities, at some point in their academic careers. This sense of doubt can prevent people from fully participating in the teaching and learning experience and make them feel like they do not belong in a scholarly environment.

At this moment, it is particularly important to examine Imposter Phenomenon, because it can exacerbate emotional exhaustion and burnout among instructors (Hutchins, Penney, & Sublett, 2017) and students (Villwock, Sobin, Koester, & Harris, 2016).

The Sheridan newsletter defines and discusses Impostor Phenomenon (sometimes called “Imposter Syndrome”) and includes strategies to help both instructors and students overcome it.

Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), Impostor Syndrome is not classified as a mental disorder. For this reason, psychologists refer to it as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP). Thus, it is important to destigmatize this phenomenon by not using medicalized language of “syndrome.” 

Impostor Phenomenon is a psychological pattern whereby an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a fear of being exposed as a fraud (see Figure 1). This term originated in the gender studies context and was first used by Clance and Imes (1978) in their research on high-achieving women.

Imposterism is stigmatizing. [...] Students suffer silently. It is vital for faculty to publicize risks, acknowledge reality, and react to legitimate feelings of inadequacy.

- Professor Edward Feller, Alpert Medical School

Signals of Impostor Phenomenon include:

  • A belief that one has fooled others into overrating one’s abilities
  • The attribution of personal success to factors other than one’s ability or intelligence, such as luck, misjudgment, charm, networking, presentation skills, or a lowering of standards
  • The IP cycle: “Impostors” start tasks with extreme overpreparation, or with initial procrastination followed by frenzied preparation. If the task is achieved successfully, a person with IP would experience a feeling of accomplishment and relief. The new cycle begins once a new achievement task is encountered, and feelings of self-doubt and anxiety recur. The chart below illustrates this cycle.

Impostor Cycle Flow Chart (Clance et al., 1995)
Figure 1. The Imposter Phenomenon cycle (Clance et al., 1995).

People experiencing IP tend to reject objective evidence of their successes and to worry excessively over mistakes. IP frequently results in neuroticism (Bernard et al., 2002), achievement orientation (King & Cooley, 1995), and perfectionism (Ferrari & Thompson, 2006), as well as feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, and burnout (Villwock et al., 2016). There have been documented positive correlations between IP and anxiety (Thompson et al., 1998), and depression (Bernard et al., 2002). IP can negatively impact one’s sense of autonomy, social relations, professional goal-directedness, and self-esteem (Leary et al., 2000).

Albert Einstein famously said, “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” (Holt, 2018). IP is primarily connected to high-achieving individuals; even the most influential experts experience the feeling of being a fraud.

Studies show that 70% of the general public report feeling Impostor Phenomenon (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011) and this percentage increases in academia. Clance and Imes (1978) suggest that individuals with achievement‐orientation, who have perfectionist expectations for themselves and work in highly competitive environments like academic settings, report higher tendencies of IP. "Publish or perish" academic culture — where performance goals can be vague, and stakes are usually high, results and feedback could be delayed, and individuals strongly identify with their professional roles — increases the internal experience of intellectual self-doubt.

Most students at Brown, including myself, were the top students in their previous schools and they are used to feeling successful by default. Although it is inspiring to see what my peers are achieving, the impostor phenomenon is real and can be often discouraging. Later on, I started to realize that everyone comes from different backgrounds and we all have our unique strengths.

- Melis Gökalp, ’21, concentrator in computer science and Slavic studies

Many people—including undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, staff, and faculty—experience IP. Studies show that IP scores are higher for underrepresented groups (e.g., students of color, first-generation students, women in STEM). Due to the positive correlation between Impostor Phenomenon and stress among students from historically underrepresented groups (Cokely et al., 2013), it is important to view IP in the context of the sense of social belonging. Creating an inclusive environment where people see themselves represented and can express their opinions fully helps to mitigate "impostor" experiences.

If you find yourself experiencing impostor phenomenon, here are some strategies that may help:

  • Seek out mentorship
  • Talk with a safe person outside of your professional network
  • Share your experience with a colleague informally
  • Seek consistent feedback on your performance to recognize your strengths
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness
  • Accept that some tasks will not be done perfectly
  • Focus on your strengths through journaling
  • Review your experience and achievements documenting your progress
  • Reward yourself for progress
  • Practice improvising to become more comfortable with speaking extemporaneously
  • Rehearse acting confident
  • Shift the language of your self-talk to focus on effort and achievement, not luck

Interestingly, in research on university librarians, social activities (like seeking out mentorship, education, networking, discussions with colleagues, or friends) were correlated with lower IP scores and proven to be more effective than internal strategies (mindfulness, journaling) (Barr-Walker et al., 2019).

To view their situations more completely and truly, individuals can create a "Failure CV" (Johannes Haushofer, 2016), listing the failures and struggles encountered along their professional journeys. This might include listing degree programs to which you were not accepted, position rejections, declined research funding, awards you did not win, rejected papers and proposals. Computational neurobiologist Melanie Stefan (2010) claims: "It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again." A comprehensive approach of combining a list of the key accomplishments and this type of CV can provide a holistic and insightful view and show how achievements correlate with failures.

IP has a systemic nature in academia and we caution that the strategies listed above are not sufficient to fully address systemic issues and differential impacts. Jesús Hernández, Assistant Director for Academic Engagement, Swearer Center, notes, “People of color, women, and first-gens may experience individual feelings of self-doubt — yet often those are exacerbated by institutional forms or structures of power...Putting the onus on the individual to overcome these thoughts/feelings when they are embedded within larger systems that produce the conditions for their emergence might further experiences of inadequacy.”

We often talk about making the classroom an inclusive or “safer space” for our students. However, in the context of IP, we might consider a term from the social justice education literature: “brave space” (Arao & Clemens, 2013). This term implies that risk-taking and challenging experiences are acknowledged and supported, not eliminated (Cook-Sather, 2016). For example, Professor Edward Feller, from Brown's Alpert Medical School, uses a variety of strategies in his class. He states, “My strategy focuses on engagement and vigilance,” and includes “mini-rituals of short group meditation, brief individual recap of one good/bad weekly experience and exchange of reliable pandemic advice, useful blogs, podcasts and music."

I remember feeling that I didn’t belong in seminars during my first year. I kept thinking that everyone knew the material, except for me. It took some time and patience to change my perspective and to recognize that I’m here to learn. We can’t be expected to know everything but we do know our specialties well. After all, we made it into graduate school. All of us have something important to contribute to our community.

- Daiana Rivas-Tello, Ph.D. student, Department of Anthropology

Another way to help students who need to work through IP is to normalize productive failure within the classroom and the discipline. Similar to creating a “failure CV,” you could invite students to reflect on ways that they have “failed effectively” in the course or their studies. To fail effectively, it is important to acknowledge you have taken a step in some direction, that failure is not the final destination, and that you can learn from the information you received from that failed step (Burger, 2018).  

Other useful strategies include:

  • Build an open discussion about IP, encouraging your students to own their accomplishments and successes.
  • Model by sharing your own experiences if you feel comfortable, reassuring your students about the normalcy of imposter feelings.
  • Promote growth mindset (Dweck, 2006) by reassuring students that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and framing your feedback mindfully—focusing not only on results, but also effort and process.
  • Ask your students about their values, goals, and motivation for learning and taking your course.
  • Try the Muddiest Point activity (Angelo & Cross, 1993). This is a quick monitoring technique in which students are asked to take a few minutes to write down the most difficult or confusing part of a lesson, lecture, or reading. Showing your students that it is normal to have some questions and difficulties while learning can be helpful for dealing with IP and create an inclusive environment. 
  • Teach self-assessment. To teach students to  accurately self-assess their own performance, rather than attribute successes to external factors, you could use self-evaluation forms, reflection activities, collaborative rubrics, or entry and exit tickets.
  • Help students to define success and set reasonable expectations for themselves through developing concrete learning targets.

By using these strategies, you can make your classroom a brave space and help your students mitigate impostor phenomenon and showcase their own strengths. 

Many of us share the misconception that research and academic success are straightforward and uninterrupted; however, they are actually non-linear. It is crucial to keep in mind that we see other people's wins and not their losses; we mostly learn about their results and not the process of their work. We often forget that our own path is curvy as well.

This newsletter was authored by Anastasia Tsylina Williams, a P.h.D candidate in Slavic Studies and a Sheridan Center graduate student proctor in 2019-21.

Thank you to Jesús Hernández, Assistant Director for Academic Engagement, Swearer Center, and the Sheridan Center staff for input on this newsletter.

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