Classroom competition may fuel first-gen students’ imposter syndrome, researchers say

Competitive classroom environments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses may exacerbate imposter syndrome in first-generation college students, according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Hoping to “identify and transform harmful contexts that might create barriers for [first-generation college] students,” lead study author Elizabeth A. Canning from Washington State University surveyed students about their perceptions of competition in their STEM classes—and about imposter feelings, where a student believes they are unworthy or undeserving of their accomplishments.

Canning and colleagues surveyed 818 freshmen and sophomore students pursuing studies in STEM fields, first gauging their sense of competition in the class and later asking questions related to imposter feelings.

Classroom competition a potential barrier for first-gen STEM students

After controlling for socioeconomic status, academic achievement levels, gender, and racial minority status, the researchers found that in “classes that students didn’t perceive as competitive, there was no difference in the levels of self-reported imposter syndrome between first- and continuing-generation students,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. 

However, “when students think their class is competitive, they feel more like an imposter on a day-to-day basis and this is most problematic for first-generation college students,” Canning told PsyPost. Moreover, imposter feelings were associated with decreased engagement, lower attendance, increased thoughts of dropping out, and lower grades in the course. “Our results suggest that perceived classroom competition may be one overlooked barrier for first-generation college students in STEM courses,” Canning said. She called for further research on “what behaviors and messages signal to students that a classroom is competitive” so institutions can create more collaborative environments that support the success of all students.


Georgetown’s Regents STEM Scholars Program seeks to address the critical shortage of underserved and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. The program combines in-person instruction and mentoring with online technologies that facilitate student engagement and understanding in fluid ways, especially across holiday breaks and summers. 

By providing more support, more structure, and more opportunities for these students, the program aims to create an equitable scientific community in which all scientists feel welcomed and valued. Learn more about the Regents STEM Scholars Program.

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