Resilience and loss of confidence

One of the myths in education outlined by Langer in “Mindful learning” is that gratification needs to be delayed. I took it to refer to the small prizes like good grades, general praise or award. Based on these aspects delaying gratification could indeed be a harmful myth. In case of grading and praise, the continuous assessment is much preferred instead of just one final grade to determine everything. Even a small praise could boost students to achieve more during the semester. However the praise and grading should be fair and realistic.

As shown by Brummelman et al. 2014 in Psychological Science, an inflated praise can be harmful for children with low self-esteem. This could also play into situations in high school, where students who do well feel they did not deserve the good grade (also mentioned by Langer). Especially in a class where the gap between high and low performers on tests is large, the teacher might feel the need to encourage low performers to look up to a high performer’s excellent work. This leads to social problems within the class: low performers might start resenting the high performers, and high performers might feel extremely uncomfortable for being drawn to the spotlight. I would like to think this is rare in higher education

Higher education has a different set of gratification producing events, like making the Dean’s list or belonging to a club. In fields of study that require research and publishing papers, the gratification comes from a job well done and accepted by the larger scientific community.  In the field of science, one has to be able to withstand failure. This is a situation where delayed gratification in form of successful experiments can be beneficial in the long run. You will learn to trouble shoot and analyze data that makes no perfect sense at first. You learn resilience in the face of failures. Ideally you will learn that not everything is your fault and the nature of science requires missteps.

But how long does one have to wait for any success? I waited 6 long years. This has made me resilient. But in the process I lost a large part of professional confidence even before entering graduate school. I doubt every single result I get. Any award is viewed as a pity prize. There must be some mistake, or other contestants just did not try. Is this a residual feeling after years of inflated praise? Could this be one of the causes of imposter syndrome in graduate students? Or is this a result of extremely delayed gratification? As usual, a middle ground must be found to prevent this sort of mindset from blossoming. To me standardized testing does nothing to help me think I am worthy of the grade. Anyone can fill circles. Heck, I sometimes guess the correct circle. The only exam I believe I truly earned an A in was an applied exam consisting of real data and on the spot analysis of it. Would we be better off with more applied exams in all fields and class sizes? What else can we do to support students in a healthy way?

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