chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Combatting Imposter Syndrome in the Classroom

Allison Caffarone
Professor of Skills & Executive Director, Perry Weitz Mass Tort Institute
Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

I suffer from imposter syndrome.[1]  I am filled with self-doubt, never quite feel as though I belong, and fear that I will be discovered to be less than. I tend to assume any successes I have are due mainly to luck. I felt this way in law school, as a Biglaw associate, and still today at times in academia. 

It turns out I’m not alone. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome is very common among law students (and lawyers), especially those from underrepresented and marginalized populations.[2]  Not surprisingly, students who feel out of place, unqualified to be in the room, and deficient when internally comparing themselves to their peers, are less likely to participate in class.  Because imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women, minorities, and first-generation law students,[3] the classroom is at risk of becoming a homogeneous environment.   

As law professors, we have a responsibility to create learning environments where all students understand they belong. Below are ten specific strategies law professors can employ in the classroom to help students suffering with imposter syndrome.

1. Share your story.  High achieving individuals commonly struggle with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. I will never forget a conversation I had with a Biglaw partner I worked for in my prior life. The conversation took place years after I had left the firm. I ran into him at a conference at the preeminent law school center on corporate wrongdoing and enforcement. I was explaining how nervous I was to present, and his response was, “We’re all just pretending. I’m just doing it with more confidence than you. You’ve got this.” 

Of course, neither he nor anyone else in the room was pretending. They were the top lawyers, policy makers and scholars in the industry. And of course, it’s very possible that he didn’t actually feel as he said he did and was simply trying to help me, but his words made me consider that perhaps I wasn’t alone in feeling inadequate. That simple concept made all the difference. After all, if he could feel this way about himself—a clear delusion—perhaps my feelings about myself were also not reality.  

If you are amongst those of us who feel like imposters, share your story with your students. When we are transparent and share our stories with others, we help them feel less alone. Students’ realization that even successful professors have felt like frauds may help them realize the disconnect between how they view themselves and the reality of who they are. 

2. Learn your students’ names and their correct pronunciation.  The more diverse the classroom, the more likely it is that questions of name pronunciation will arise. If you are unsure how to pronounce a student’s name, ask for clarification, then make note of the correct pronunciation to assure you get it correct moving forward.  

3. Ask students for their preferred pronouns.  It goes without saying that using an individual’s preferred pronoun is affirming. Moreover, using the wrong pronoun can be harmful. At the beginning of the semester, professors should ask students for their preferred pronouns. To avoid unintentionally embarrassing or outing students, this can be done by asking students to fill out a form or write their preferred pronouns on index cards or the seating chart, rather than asking aloud. 

4. Employ alternative means of communicating information.  Not all students learn the same way and most law professors are likely to encounter more than a few students who do not learn quite as easily as they did. To be the most effective and reach the widest range of students, professors should employ different formats and mediums to convey information.  For auditory learners, lecture and class discussion may be best. To reach visual learners, professors can incorporate images, graphs, charts, and video clips into their lessons. As an example, the teacher’s manual for an evidence casebook comes with a DVD of videoclips.[4]  Having the class watch and analyze the clips, frees them from rote analyses of textbook problems and can allow for visual learners to absorb the information more easily. To reach kinesthetic learners, consider having students play the role of lawyer and make arguments to you as the judge. Allow students opportunities to demonstrate practical skills during class. Varying instruction techniques can lead to a greater number of students having successful learning experiences. And the more times students feel successful, the more confidence they build and the more engaged they become. 

5. Pause after asking a question.  Students suffering from imposter syndrome are less likely to volunteer in class. One technique to help foster participation is pausing before calling on a volunteer. After asking a question in class, wait. The pause need not be long, maybe 15 seconds. During this time, provide subtle encouragement by making eye contact and smiling at more reluctant students. This simple technique can provide students with a chance to process their thoughts and encourage those who otherwise would not have chosen to speak up, to voice their views.

6. Create PowerPoints that depict a range of cultures.  Just as your classroom is diverse (hopefully), so should be the graphics on your presentations. Graphics can be alienating if they depict, for example, only one gender or race. Promote inclusivity and a sense of belonging by including pictures of people with diverse characteristics with respect to disabilities, race, ethnicity, and gender.

7. Make your PowerPoint presentations and online material accessible to people with disabilities.  Universally design your presentations so they are accessible to everyone. [5]  If using PPTs, use large, simple text and high-contrast color schemes. Leave plenty of uncluttered, white space.  For online materials, provide a text-based description of the content of images and use a heading structure.[6]

8. Create hypotheticals and exams that depict a range of cultures.  When drafting hypotheticals, use inclusive and respectful language that includes a variety of diverse names and relationships. Consider, for example, including same-sex and interracial couples. 

9. Use electronic polling.  The ability to assess student understanding during the learning process is an extremely useful tool for professors. One way to get instant feedback is simply by asking the class to raise their hand in response to a question.  While this type of polling has its positives—no technology needed—it can be hampered if students suffering from imposter syndrome simply don’t raise their hand, or perhaps even more commonly, wait to see how most of the class answers and then mirror that response. Another way to get instant feedback that avoids this problem is by using electronic polling. Professors can use free online services to pose questions to their students and get anonymous responses in real time. Students can answer using their phones or computers. Such resources are great ways to assess the whole class’s understanding without requiring students to answer aloud. For students with imposter syndrome, this technology can be freeing.[7]  For professors of students with imposter syndrome, this this technology can lead to more accurate assessment of class understanding.

10. Flip the script.  Encourage students to embrace their mistakes.  When students get an answer wrong in class or on an assessment, they often see that as failing.  This feeling of failure reinforces the feelings of inadequacy already present in those suffering from imposter syndrome.  

At some point in our lives, we’ve all heard “it’s okay to make mistakes.”  But sometimes students need to hear it from their professors. Professors should explain to students that mistakes and wrong answers are part of the learning process.  Moreover, if they are on a path to learning they are succeeding (after all, school is about learning). Mistakes don’t equate to failure; indeed, they mark the beginning of success. 

As law schools become more diverse and inclusive, classes will include a greater number of students suffering with imposter syndrome. Employing these simple strategies will not solve the problem of imposter syndrome but they can help. 

[1] Imposter syndrome is defined as the anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one’s competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one’s accomplishments to luck or other external forces.



[4] George Fisher, Evidence (4th ed. 2023)




The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.