Increasing efforts have been made in recent years to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
There’s been a particularly positive emphasis on getting a more diverse group of people onto such courses: women, black and ethnic minority groups and working class people have all been the focus of drives and campaigns designed to help them enter STEM careers.
But, a new study suggests, the competitive nature of STEM courses may be having a knock-on effect on the confidence of certain students, in this case first-generation college attendees (those who are the first in their family to go to university). Such students, the paper argues, are more likely to experience “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that they don’t belong or don’t have the skills or intelligence to continue on their studies — precisely because of this atmosphere of competition.
In such environments, previous research has shown, students are more likely to compare themselves (often unfavourably) to others. When we feel our peers are our adversaries, rather than colleagues or comrades, we look to their successes and failures to judge ourselves: often, we believe we fall short, and our confidence falters.
In first-generation students, the paper argues, this can be even more damaging. First-generation students are often raised with communal values, relying on other people rather than seeing them as rivals. When this meets the competitive, individualistic world of STEM courses, it can have a particularly detrimental impact.
To study the impact of competition on first-generation college attendees, researchers enlisted 818 freshmen and sophomores enrolled in STEM courses at a large U.S. university. Participants were first asked to complete a survey, once at the beginning of term and once after the deadline to drop courses, measuring perceptions of classroom competition; participants rated statements such as “the professor seems to pit students against each other in a competitive manner in this class” on a scale of one to seven. Demographic data was also collected during these surveys, including information on whether participants were first-generation students.
Six weeks into term, students were sent further surveys to complete daily, asking whether or not they had been attending class. Those who had been attending were asked to explore imposter feelings, rating statements like “in class, I feel like people might find out I am not as capable as they think I am” on a scale of one to six; those who had not been attending were asked to explain why. The team also recorded how engaged students felt, how often they attended class, how much they thought about dropping out, and their grades.
As anticipated, those who felt classes were competitive were far more likely to feel as if they were an imposter, unable to keep up with the demands of their course. And compared to those with family members who had gone to university, first-generation students were more likely to experience feelings of imposter syndrome on a daily basis — but only in classes perceived to have high levels of competition. In non-competitive environments, imposter feelings were equal in both first-generation and continued generation students, suggesting that the atmosphere of the classroom really is a key driver.
By increasing their imposter feelings, the students’ perceptions of classroom competition also had a negative impact on their achievement, reducing engagement, attendance, and performance, and increasing dropout intentions. This effect was much greater amongst first-generation students
The team do note that repeatedly seeing questions about imposter syndrome may in fact have triggered those feelings: although measures were limited to once per day in the second part of the study, contemplating competition and achievement may in fact have enhanced feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.
How other identities intersect with the phenomenon was also left unaddressed. Women and people of colour are both more susceptible to imposter syndrome, for example, and exploring how such identities interact with one another could be a focus of future research.
Creating a welcoming, supportive environment for everybody to study STEM subjects, no matter their background, is key to a diverse and inclusive field. Understanding more about how students of different backgrounds experience STEM studies and actively developing strategies to counter inequalities are both vital steps towards making sure this happens.