Self-enhancement and imposter syndrome: neither is good for your teaching

I read a terrific paper this week by Jennifer McCrickerd (Drake University) called, “Understanding and Reducing Faculty Reluctance to Improve Teaching.” In it, the author lists 6 reasons why some post-secondary (#highered) instructors are not interested in improving the way they teach:

  1. instructors’ self-identification as members of a discipline (sociologists, biologists, etc.) instead of as members of the teaching profession;
  2. emphasis early in instructors’ careers (graduate school, when working to attain jobs and then tenure) on research and publishing;
  3. instructors’ resistance to being told what to do;
  4. instructors’ unwillingness to sacrifice content delivery for better teaching;
  5. instructors’ momentum and no perception that current practices need to change;
  6. risk to sense of self involve with change by change by instructors

These are succinct descriptions of the anecdotes and grumblings I hear all the time, from instructors who have transformed to student-centered instruction, from instructors who see no need to switch away from traditional lectures and from my colleagues and peers in the teaching and learning community whose enable and support change.

What makes McCrickerd’s paper so good, in my opinion, is she connects the motivation behind these 6 reasons  to research in psychology. In particular, to Dweck’s work [1] on fixed- and mutable-mindsets (with fixed-mindset, you can either teach or you can’t, just like some people can do math and some can’t) and to Fischer’s work [2] on dynamic skill theory (which posits, “skill acquisition always includes drops in proficiency before progress in proficiency returns”).

I won’t go into all the details because McCrickerd’s paper is very nice — you should read it yourself. But there’s one facet that I want to examine because of how it relates to a blog post I recently read, “How I cured my imposter syndrome,” by Jacquelyn Gill (@jacquelyngill on Twitter). She writes,

I felt like I’d somehow fooled everyone into thinking I was qualified to get into graduate school, and couldn’t shake the anxiety that someone would ultimately figure out the error. When something good would happen– a grant, or an award– I subconsciously chalked it up to luck, rather than merit.

With that resonating resonating in my head (yes, resonating: I often feel imposter syndrome), I read that McCrickerd traces some instructors’ reluctance to “self-enhancement” which she describes as follows:

Most Westerners tend, when assessing our own abilities, character or behavior, to judge ourselves to be above average in ability. In particular, we view ourselves as crucial to the success of our accomplishments but when not successful, we attribute the lack of success to things other than our actual abilities.

The streams crossed and I scratched out a little table in the margins of the paper:

McCrickerd points out it is only through dissatisfaction that we change our behavior. An instructor with an overly-enhanced self sees no reason to change when something bad happens in class. “Not my fault they didn’t learn…”

And who else does a lot of teaching? Teaching assistants, that’s who. Graduate students with a raging case of imposter syndrome. When something goes wrong in their classes, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t even be here in the first place…”

Yeah, that’s a real motivator.

So, what do we do about it.Again, McCrickerd has some excellent ideas:

[I]nstructors need to be understood to be learners with good psychological reasons for their choices and if different choices are going to be encouraged, these reasons must be addressed.

The delicate job of those tasked with helping to improve teaching and learning is to engage these reluctant instructors so they begin to look at learning objectively, then to demonstrate there are more effective ways to teach, to closely support their first attempts (which are likely to result in decrease in proficiency) and to continue to support incremental steps forward. It’s not always easy to start the process but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my job, it’s the importance of making a connection and then earning the trust of the instructor.

Now, go read the McCrickerd paper. It’s really good.



[1] Dweck, C. 2000. Self-theories: Their roles in motivation, personality and development. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis Group.

This Scientific American article by Dweck is a nice introduction to fixed and mutable minds-sets

[2] Fischer, K., Z. Yan, & J. Stewart. 2003. Adult cognitive development: Dynamics in the developmental web. In Handbook of developmental psychology, ed. J. Valsiner & K. Connelly, 491-516. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. [pdf from]

 Image “The Show Off. Part 2” by Sister72 on flicker (CC)

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5 Responses to Self-enhancement and imposter syndrome: neither is good for your teaching

  1. Hi Peter,
    I am just wrapping up a busy semester and haven’t even had time yet to tell you I started following your blog as soon as I returned from my visit to UBC back in March. Sorry for being a lurker.
    Thanks for turning me on to this excellent article! As a new faculty developer, these are important issues to be aware of. Personally, reason #3 resonated especially well with me!

    • As I wrote in the post, what impresses me most about this article is that it collects together all the rumours and old wives’ tales about why instructors won’t change and traces their origins. For those like you and me involved in faculty development, the more we know about the audience, the better we can anticipate their behaviour and plan for it.

      And no apologies are necessary for “lurking.” That’s how everyone starts, right up to that watershed moment when you post your first post or tweet your first tweet. Dive in, the water’s great!

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  3. Becca says:

    I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately at my school about how we communicate about ourselves to the outside world (we’re a school founded with the goal of changing engineering education and our curriculum is very student-centered and project-based). One of the biggest things that has come out of those conversations for me is the idea that we aren’t trying to spread what we do or how we do it; we’re trying to spread our ideals and values. If we just tell someone else “this is what our curriculum is,” it’s really easy for them to dismiss our ideas by saying “that wouldn’t work here” – and in many cases they’re right: you can’t just take what works for a school of 300 and expect it to succeed in a school of 5000. Instead, what we say is: “Here are the things we value. These are our goals for our students.” and then help them come up with their own solutions – methods of teaching that will work in their context, to achieve the same goals. I think that’s really the key to getting instructors to change: you have to first convince them of the need for it, starting from a common ground of shared values or desired outcomes. Then support them as they figure out what it will take to get there.

    • Thanks for the comment. Olin College looks like an interesting place to teach and learn.

      One of the first things we do with new instructors, or instructors new to getting teaching support, is talk about learning goals (aka outcomes, objectives) It usually starts with e small stuff: “by the end of this course, you [the student] will be able to derive the wave equation from Maxwell’s Equations.” As we draft this set of topic-level goals, some course-level goals come to the surface, like “you will be able to assess the validity of your solutions by comparing them to previous results and to real-world phenomena.” These are goals for a single, 13-week course.

      It doesn’t happen in my Department but my geophysics colleagues talk about degree-level goals, that is, skills we want graduates to walk away with. Often those goals are influenced by the accreditation the graduates are hoping to acquire. These degree-level goals sound like what you’re talking about, the kind of values and professional behaviour we want graduates to take with them into the World.

      I wish we had more conversations about values in my Department. It’s a daunting set of goals to draft and build a curriculum around but a very worthwhile task, I imagine.

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