three people leaning over a table piecing paper together
April 03, 2023

More Than Imposter Syndrome

Lowering barriers for first-year students to ask for help
by Latasha Boyd
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*

I am the director of Andover: Challenge and Empower (ACE), a program that gives students who are new to boarding school life an on-ramp to the expectations of Phillips Academy. ACE is a fully funded scholarship program for incoming and returning students of Phillips Academy.

Designed for students who receive significant financial assistance to attend Andover and who may be among the first-generation of their family to attend an undergraduate program, ACE is grounded in the understanding that students and families come to Andover having been afforded different opportunities and having lived different experiences. To address these differences, ACE focuses on the intersections among sense-of-belonging, capital valued in this community, and academic, personal, and social success.

ACE consists of two groups:

  • ACE 1 welcomes students to Andover in the summer before matriculation.
  • ACE 2 brings students back to Andover in the summer following their first year.

While primarily a summer program, ACE continues to support ACE scholars during the academic year for the remainder of their time at Andover. After school begins each year, I meet with student participants to see how their transition is going. In September 2022, during one of my first meetings with new ninth-grade students, a student shared, “I feel like I shouldn’t need to ask for help.”

Educators at Phillips Academy often talk about imposter syndrome as a barrier to students seeking help. New students often compare their performance to their peers’ and fear that they aren’t prepared or capable enough for this school experience and/or that their belonging is at stake. But this student helped me see that the decision to seek help can be a more complex issue.

I chose to use the Action Research process to:

  1. illuminate the barriers which discourage or prevent students from asking for help from their teachers, and
  2. develop supportive interventions so that they ask for help earlier in the fall term—before challenges become problematic.

One student mentioned in an interview, 'I didn’t start feeling comfortable asking until the end of fall term in my last math conference. I felt regret thinking of all the time I had wasted when I could have sought the help I needed earlier.'

Knowing that we already have a robust set of resources for help on campus, I began my research by meeting with Laura Warner, the director of our Academic Skills Center (ASC). We discussed how students use the ASC as a resource. In a 2022 survey, one-third of 174 student respondents had never visited the ASC. Most of those students indicated that they did not feel a need to use the space, but approximately 3 percent of respondents indicated that they felt too embarrassed or awkward to let someone know they needed help. Additionally, a few thought they should be more self-sufficient in their learning or felt they didn’t have time.

The idea of needing to be self-sufficient had also arisen in my interviews with ACE students. In my review of relevant research literature, it seems this is a common pattern among students whose background and identities have historically been less represented at Phillips Academy. Students who will be the first in their families to attend college have learned to depend on themselves for their learning and can be reluctant to admit that they may need help.

To explore students’ reasons for not seeking help, I invited six ninth-graders to reflect with me on their first year at Andover—three who had completed ACE and three from a random selection of ninth-grade students. Three students agreed to participate.

In a survey about the fall trimester, students said they realized they needed help early in the term—around the second week—but didn’t start engaging resources until the third or fourth week. For most concerns or issues, they started with peers before reaching out to their teachers. One student said in their interview, “Because of orientation, I had created a bond with some of my peers, so asking them questions came more naturally.” These students indicated that at the start of the academic year, they feared that if they showed their peers they needed help, they would lose their sense of belonging among classmates. However, as these relationships strengthened over weeks of working together, they became more comfortable expressing vulnerability later in the term.

These students have helped me see the critical role of social bonds in creating a comfortable space for vulnerability and questioning. While I and my faculty colleagues are glad that students seek help from their peers, we want them to seek help directly from their teachers as well, without hesitation as soon as they sense a need. Based on my learning thus far, I hypothesize that if students develop trusting relationships with their teachers early in a course, they may feel less anxiety around asking teachers for support.

In the coming months, I will develop supportive interventions which focus on rapidly strengthening relationships between new students and their teachers at the outset of a term. I have identified a set of teachers who are meeting new ninth-grade students this spring term and have planned an event for “problem-solving bonding."

I look forward to collecting data on the students’ behaviors in their courses before and after the event. While this event will be designed to support students who have participated in the ACE program—those who are at higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome and anxiety about belonging—the intervention may prove beneficial for all incoming students.

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*Latasha Boyd is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development.

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