Internalizing Learning

I think I have a way to fix impostor syndrome. Rachael Cayley tells us that it is “a failure to internalize success”. I like that way of putting it.  Obviously, the individual solution is to, well, internalize your successes. But how do we make that happen more generally in the student population, so that those who get good grades and, therefore, might go on to pursue advanced degrees, not only are in fact successful, but also feel entitled to the grants and the tenure we give them?

First, I think there should be more on-site written exams with a fixed time limit and no materials (no books, notes, phones, laptops, etc.) Don’t tell me that this tests an “irrelevant” skill, since in “real life” students will always have access to “the internet”. Don’t tell me it just demands memorization, not learning. What it demands is internalization of learning. Getting a good grade on such an exam requires not just that they have successfully understood the material, it requires that the students make that success, i.e., that understanding, their own, rather than feeling forever dependent on whatever source happened to teach it to them. When they then successfully “regurgitate” it, they show themselves that they really did appropriate the material.

Second, grade the students on a curve. Getting an A should not tell students that they have reached some arbitrary level of understanding as defined by an institution. It should tell them plainly that they are the smartest in their class. Graduating with straight As should not make you unsure of whether you can impress some future teacher or other authority. It should make you confident that you’re better able to impress such authorities than most others.

It’s that simple. The reason impostor syndrome has become, as Rachael put is, a general “academic condition” rather than a rare disorder is that we’ve stopped grading students on their abilities. If we started doing that again, this problem would go away in about a generation. But we’d also have a generation of horrifyingly competent young people. Maybe that fear is part of what’s holding us back?

2 thoughts on “Internalizing Learning

  1. Two points:

    1. The way I read the post was not that some disorder has become a common affliction but rather that a common condition has been given a name that has made it seem like exceptional rather than a natural part of being human in a particular context.

    2. Even if it was a common condition. I think it is a useful one. Let’s call it humility. As we see all the time, academic credentials bestow all sorts of epistemic credibility on people that get misused and misappropriated. The current system of incentives and rewards in the academic environment should make people feel over entitled and over praised – they don’t need to internalize success. They need to see it as a result of luck that they’re living in an environment that allows them to reap rewards for their particular set of skills disproportionate to the amount of work involved (and often the contribution to the general well being).

    3. Grading on a curve may do what you intend but it gives the lie to basing prestige on subject knowledge. If truth seeking is the object of science, than being slightly less wrong than somebody else should confer no prestige. We should be relating to the subject of study not to others’ relation to it.

    Anyway, this post on postmodernism strikes me as apposite:

    1. I don’t know how I missed this comment. My reply is long overdue! I may be misunderstanding some of these point, but here are my quick reactions.

      1. I do believe that more people feel humbled (even humiliated) by their academic success and that they don’t really understand their own qualifications (often even though they possess them).

      2. I do not think that confusion about what qualifies you to expound knowledgeably on your area of expertise is good or useful. I don’t think teachers are working at their best if they feel like imposters when they stand in front of their students. I want neither my doctor nor my pilot to actually feel like they’re faking it when they’re doing their jobs.

      3. I don’t think grading on a curve implies that people who are “less wrong” will necessarily always get better grades. It all depends on the competence being tested. In most cases, it’s not whether or not you are right, but how you handle being wrong that matters. This openness to criticism is testable.

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