How to detect ‘imposter’ students and ‘invulnerable’ students

Do men and women learn differently? Beyond possible sociological or physiological differences, what our research among university students of Political Science is demonstrating is that gender has an impact on the learning process.

Socialization involves the assumption of norms during childhood and adolescence that are internalized unconsciously. In a patriarchal system, socialization is carried out through gender norms that define what is socially expected of men and women, also in educational spaces. In the case of girls, the gender norms of discretion, perfection, collaboration and complacency operate. For its part, we detect in boys patterns associated with fraternity, apathy, vehemence and invulnerability.

In previous articles we have explained what tools help to correct the inequalities resulting from these differential patterns of behavior and how group contracts and travel logs can make it easier for students to manage these inequalities.

But, before correcting them, it is necessary to identify them. How can we do it?

Diagnose yourself in the classroom

There are various tests that allow us to analyze diversity in classrooms. One of them is the Kolb test, which identifies more abstract and speculative learning styles compared to more applied and concrete styles. Our studies in political science indicate that the first tends to be more present among boys, and the second among girls.

Another questionnaire that shows gender bias in learning is the Clance test on imposter syndrome. This phenomenon was described by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and is characterized by an individual’s intimate belief that they are deceiving others. Thus, the person considers that the reason for her deception is that she unconsciously wants others to overestimate her ability. Consequently, this person does not attribute his own achievements to her effort or aptitude. The result is permanent tension due to the fear of being discovered as a fraud.

This syndrome is very common in situations of professional and academic success and has consequences both personally and in training itineraries. Studies indicate that it has a greater presence in women. This preponderance of the feeling of being an “impostor” is linked to gender norms of perfectionism and affects motivation.

Specifically, the Clance test presents 20 statements that can be scored on a scale of 1 to 5 based on the extent to which each person believes they represent them. These are questions that refer to security, accepting praise, fear of being discovered as incompetent, etc. The sum of the scores allows us to quantify the relevance of this phenomenon according to the scale according to which a score between 20 and 40 means absence of syndrome; 41 and 60 define moderate experiences; between 61 and 80 frequent experiences; and between 81 and 100 intense experiences of the syndrome.

Practical case

In 2023 we set out to measure the weight of this phenomenon in the students of the Political Science Degree at the UPV/EHU. The questionnaire was completed by 110 female and 93 male students. The average results show a moderately high presence of the syndrome in the students of the Political Science degree, with the average being 62 points. However, the difference between boys and girls is 10 points (67 for girls and 57 for men). That is, the strength of the phenomenon, on average, is greater in female students, in accordance with other international studies in most disciplines.

Now, if we count the extreme responses, we find very significant differences. To do this, we analyze what happens only with the tests with answers below 50 and above 70. From this perspective, if we discard the questionnaires with average answers, the gender differences skyrocket: only 7% of girls have low scores, while those with scores greater than 70 points amount to 46%. On the other hand, in the case of boys, 22% have low scores, but only 8% have high scores.

Finally, if we look at the number of people with extreme scores, we find that 10% of the students (20 girls) have intense experiences of the syndrome (with test scores greater than 80), but there is only one boy in the entire class. degree who is in the same situation.

Consequences on learning

Gender theories help to better understand these results. Female socialization based on mandates of perfection and discretion correlates with a higher prevalence of impostor syndrome. On the contrary, masculine mandates of invulnerability and vehemence may underlie an overly positive self-regard.

This self-perception can have consequences, especially in the presentation of final degree projects. Thus, both excess confidence, more present in boys, and insecurity, more present in girls, can affect the quality of work presentations.

That is why a self-diagnosis and work in the classroom that allows students to analyze their results, compare them with those of the group and understand them from gender theories can help improve presentations: in some cases, warning of the need to prepare it thoroughly using materials as graphic presentations, to avoid a certain tendency to improvisation derived from a perception of invulnerability; in others, working on security to provide a certain confidence when defending the work done with solvency and assertiveness.

In this way, neither a false sense of being an impostor nor that of feeling invulnerable can play tricks that have consequences on the evaluation.

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