Fighting impostor syndrome by providing meaningful feedback

Let’s talk for a minute about impostor syndrome.

For any teacher, this phenomenon will be present to some extent, but in STEM it is especially dangerous for female-identified students and students of color.  There are many responses to impostor syndrome, including creating safe community within your institution for underrepresented groups, discussing the challenges facing those who aren’t well-represented in their chosen fields, and decreasing language that activates stereotype threat.

However, one article I read last year by Beth Andres-Beck stood out in its approach to battling stereotype threat: providing clear, direct feedback that is backed up by concrete evidence.  The author writes about working in various coding environments where insufficient feedback (positive or negative) created a vacuum in which the particular coder could insert whatever self-image they wanted: being the best coder in the world, or conversely, being the least qualified coder of all time.

The trap of impostor syndrome in this scenario is that by choosing to believe that you are an unqualified coder but continuing to work as one creates an urgent need to hide whatever it is that you are doing.  This cycle of perpetuating lack of authentic feedback constructs a fragile identity as an impostor – one that even occasional evaluation can’t break through.

“The genius of imposter syndrome is…we don’t have to disregard when we fall short, for such failures fit our internal narrative.  …When we succeed, we can believe it is part of our act.  Look how well I have fooled everyone by doing work they think is good!  …We have trouble accepting real feedback, since any feedback is based on our facade and we “know” better.  Imposter syndrome also brings with it anxiety and shame, preventing us from feeling the thrill of accomplishment when we do succeed.  It robs us of the joy we earn.”

As a teacher reading the article, it was impossible not to wonder how I create such vacuums of authentic feedback in my own assessments.  And when choosing between the three options of self-concept in an environment with insufficient feedback – good science student, bad science student, and bad science student who everyone believes to be a good science student – it is clear from personal experience that the latter two are usually the perspectives taken by my female students and my students of color.

In response, I am trying to collect tools that will enable me to provide detailed feedback to my students, either from me as a teacher or from peer assessment, that is clear, authentic, and non-threatening.  Below I have listed a few possible strategies – if you have other ideas, please chime in!

  • Frequent formative assessment By using formative assessment probes on a regular basis, students will receive feedback about their own learning in a timely, non-threatening manner.  I highly recommend the work done by Page Keeley on FA in both science and mathematics – her book “Science Formative Assessment” was one of the first texts that got me motivated to become a science teacher.
  • Using detailed rubrics Though writing narrative comments are often more specific and useful, having rubrics that link to the targets for a specific assignment makes it easier for teachers to provide detailed feedback on many assignments in a timely, meaningful manner.  Provide rubrics when the assignment is given (not just at the end) and add specific detail so that students understand the goals set for the assignment.  There are great resources on rubrics at the Buck Institute for Education, which focuses on best practices for Project-Based Learning.
  • Anonymous peer assessment & online discussion The “anonymous” piece of this is incredibly important, when it is feasible.  By creating spaces where students can give feedback to each other/engage with each other without knowing the recipient’s identity, they are less likely to base their comments on their concept of the student receiving the feedback.  Especially given that male students are more likely to be rated as “smart” by their classmates, this is incredibly important to the process for everyone involved.  Anonymous online discussions (see STEMming the confidence gap) are also shown to promote comfort for female students and create parity in male and female participation in discussions.
  • Focus on learning targets Instead of highlighting how smart a student is or their effort, provide feedback specific to the learning targets of the assignment.  Frame your feedback as how the student is or is not meeting the goals of the assignment or unit, and if there is a gap, how it can be successfully bridged by the student.  This is a natural outcropping of standards-based grading, which many schools and districts have adapted more and more to provide more meaningful, learning-focused assessment to students.

What ideas do you have to add to this list?  Other thoughts on fighting impostor syndrome?  Leave them in the comments!