Tag: Columbia

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.

 

Last Wednesday, President Bollinger held one of his semesterly Fireside Chats, during which he invites Columbia students to his home and answers any questions they may have. This fireside chat seemed especially heavy with recent events like the student deaths on campus and the now-defunct presidential executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Students also raised questions about Columbia’s Graduate Student Union, the potential to pay tuition based on number of credit hours taken, the lack of space on Columbia’s campus, and the possibility of divesting from fossil fuels.

While President Bollinger answered every question asked of him respectfully and calmly (in some cases cracking jokes and in others, deferring to more specialized administrators), some of his answers didn’t seem to hold any weight. For example, in light of the recent student deaths on campus, he started the chat by saying that he valued mental health and encouraged students to use the resources available to them. Later, when a student asked about the potential to pay per credit hour (to lighten the financial burden for seniors who need a few more credits to complete their degree), President Bollinger responded that it’s the student’s choice to decide the number of credits to take a semester. This response seemed to ignore the fact that a lot of work and stress comes with an heavy course load, and the student might choose a lighter load because it’s what they can handle. He also shifted the conversation to one about Columbia’s financial aid, effectively dismissing the credit hours idea.

When an Iranian GS student shared her hopes to see her son in Iran after 16 years apart, only for them to be dashed after the president’s executive order, President Bollinger wasn’t able to say what would happen to the student’s student visa after her final year at Columbia. “I wanted to make the United States my home, and I have doubt about that happening now,” she said tearfully. Instead, he focused on the now and said that Columbia was offering lawyers pro bono to anyone who needed legal help.

He also outlined the reasons behind the university contesting the recent Graduate Student Union vote, citing past legal cases involving student unions and “a number of behaviors by the union that were inappropriate [that] could have affected the outcome of the election.”

As for campus space, President Bollinger said that the administration wants to keep spaces inclusive and is “looking for venues to have more space where students can get together and support each other.” He also hinted at making John Jay open for more hours, even after JJ’s Place reopens.

Lastly, President Bollinger answered questions about the endowment and fossil fuels. “In general,” he said, “the policies of all universities in the modern era have been that we’re not going to use the endowment as a means of implementing our social choices. . . Research, expanding knowledge, conveying knowledge to the next generation: that’s what we do and we’re trying to get money to support that. That’s the general view, and I think that’s the right policy.” As a counterexample to this statement, he brought up apartheid in South Africa, but said that using the endowment for social change was otherwise “pretty rare.” He said that the policy was being looked over by a committee of students, faculty, and trustees and that we’d see “decisions in the next three to six months.”

In response to pressure from groups on campus, Columbia President Lee Bollinger issued a statement early this morning regarding President Trump’s recent executive order regarding immigration policy. The full statement is below:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

With the executive order issued by President Trump barring admission to the United States of Syrian refugees and imposing a 90-day ban on all immigrant and nonimmigrant entry from seven Muslim-majority nations, the fear so many have had about federal policies being changed in ways that could affect our community has become disturbingly real.

The public controversy and legal debate over the President’s order is intense.  Among the many strong petitions and compelling statements that have been issued is one from the Association of American Universities (AAU), of which Columbia is a member.  We join with many peers in decrying this action as discriminatory, damaging to America’s leadership in higher education, and contrary to our nation’s core values and founding principles.

At a practical level, we are advising community members and visiting scholars from the designated countries to suspend plans for international travel.  At the moment, we do not know of any Columbia students, faculty, or staff from the seven designated countries who are currently abroad.  In the meantime, we urge anyone seeking further guidance to contact our International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO).

At a more fundamental level, this order undermines the nation’s continuing commitment to remain open to the exchange of people and ideas.  We must not underestimate the scale of its impact.  An estimated 17,000 international students in the U.S. are from the seven nations covered by the entry ban.  Scholars planning to travel to the United States for meetings and conferences at our colleges and universities will effectively be barred from attending.  If this order stands, there is the certainty of a profound impact on our University community, which is committed to welcoming students, faculty, and staff from around the world, as well as across the nation.

As I have said on many occasions, it is critically important that the University, as such, not take stands on ideological or political issues.  Yet it is also true that the University, as an institution in the society, must step forward to object when policies and state action conflict with its fundamental values, and especially when they bespeak purposes and a mentality that are at odds with our basic mission.  This is such a case.
   
It is important to remind ourselves that the United States has not, except in episodes of national shame, excluded individuals from elsewhere in the world because of their religious or political beliefs.  We have learned that generalized fears of threats to our security do not justify exceptions to our founding ideals.  There are many powerful and self-evident reasons not to abandon these core values, but among them is the fact that invidious discrimination often adds fuel to deeply harmful stereotypes and hostility affecting our own citizens. 

It is with regret that I have to send this communication. 

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger

In an email sent to members of the Columbia community earlier today, the University has confirmed the passing of Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen from an apparent suicide. Chen, an exchange student from Waseda University in Japan had been a part of Columbia College. The full email from James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College can be found below:

As we enter a new semester, we think it is important to share resources available on campus to members of the Columbia community:

Student Resources:

Email from Dean James Valentini:

 

Dear Students,

With a heavy heart, I am writing to let you know about the loss of a member of our community. Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen, an exchange student at Columbia College from Waseda University in Japan, has died in an apparent suicide.

We have begun reaching out to Mia’s friends and classmates whom we could identify to provide support and assistance during this difficult time. Whether or not you knew Mia, you may wish to gather with other community members. We have set up a space for reflection and conversation from 7-9 p.m. on Broadway 14th floor East and McBain Main Lounge.

This is an especially difficult time for all of us. As you know, we mourned the loss of another Columbia College student in December. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your advisers, your Residential Life staff, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the University Chaplain, your faculty members, and family and friends for support.

The following resources are available to you:

  • The Broadway Residence Hall 14th Floor East Lounge and the McBain Main Lounge will be open as gathering spaces from 7-9 p.m. today. Staff from Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of University Chaplain, and Residential Life will be in attendance. Anytime before 7 p.m., staff from Residential Life will also be available in Broadway 103 for drop-in visits.
  • In addition to their regular hours, Counseling and Psychological Services (212-854-2878) will offer extended walk-in hours:
    • 5-10 p.m. tonight and tomorrow in the CPS office in Broadway Hall
    • All day today and tomorrow until 10 p.m. on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall
  • The Office of the University Chaplain (212-854-1493) in Earl Hall and St. Paul’s Chapel will be open until 10 p.m. for individual or group counseling.
  • Your advisers in the Berick Center for Student Advising (212-854-6378) are available to talk with you about any concerns.
  • You can seek support from Residential Life staff at any time, who may connect you with additional resources.

I know that all of you join me in sending our deepest condolences to Mia’s family and friends.

Sincerely,
James J. Valentini
Dean of Columbia College and
Vice President for Undergraduate Education

cc: Mary C. Boyce, Dean of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science

Resources

 

Do you often find yourself in a large lecture course required for your major and lose focus ten minutes in? Do you wonder if it’s even worth going to class, and decide your time would be better spent studying (or sleeping)?

In a previous column, I proposed that the current method of teaching undergraduates is increasingly at odds with mounting evidence from both education research and neuroscience. This column, I’ll be proposing a few easy and evidence-based fixes to make lecture courses not only more fun and engaging for students, but also easier for professors to teach in a more effective way.

My advice boils down to one simple idea: turn lecture courses into a hub of social activity. If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty of how to implement this technique either as a student or professor, stay tuned for next week’s column — this one is going to focus on the scientific rationale behind my advice.

It might seem counterintuitive that letting students engage in ‘distracting’ activities like talking in class results in greater learning, but education research has been supporting this idea for decades. One recent meta review of over 400 studies showed that engaging active learning techniques focused on social activity in lectures boosted not only the overall average grade, but also most improved the grades of those at the bottom of the class, without decreasing the high scores of those at the top.

Essentially, social learning has a ‘rising tides float all boats’ effect.

The most well-tested way to implement social learning comes from the well-studied ‘flipped classroom’ technique. In this approach, the ‘lecture’ component of the class is assigned as homework to be completed prior to the class, most commonly as a video file and more rarely as an interactive online assignment or textbook readings. In class, students are assigned to work on problem sets or discuss the material in groups, with the professor and TAs as facilitators who ‘check in’ with groups by answering questions and offering guidance. This model actively encourages cooperation and lively discussion among classmates. Sounds more fun than your normal lecture, right?

Now for the neuroscience. Humans are fundamentally social animals, with much larger brain regions dedicated to analyzing and understanding the emotions and motivations of other people. Social activity is so important to us that our ‘default’ brain network, the one that activates when you’re daydreaming or not thinking about much at all, overlaps heavily with your brain’s go-to area of activation for social activity, the mentalizing network. Your brain ‘wants’ to be in this state, because historically, cooperation with peers has been mutually beneficial to survival.

Social activity is in fact so rewarding that interacting with other people triggers a huge release of domaine, the same ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter responsible for chemically induced highs. Amazingly, the release of dopamine can also enhance the brain’s ability to create and store new memories. So to sum up, feeling happy while learning is not only positive for your well being, but can actually help to improve your memory.

It’s no wonder that social activity plays a massive role in our lives and correspondingly holds a massive influence over our brains. But by forcing students to unnaturally focus on fast-paced and unvaried information flow, traditional lectures put an unduly heavy strain on the brain’s working memory network.

As a lecture goes on, the brain’s pull to ‘wander’ gets more intense, and focus is eventually lost. Social learning works so well because it hijacks this drive to socialize and redirects it towards learning. By engaging the default/mentalizing network, group work enhances a student’s ability to focus for long periods of time, and the extra dopamine released from socialization helps that information be better retained.

Engaging in more socialization can have many positive side effects as well. Long-standing issues in the Columbia community revolve around the oppressive stress-culture and feeling of loneliness experienced by many students.

While switching to a social-learning based classroom environment won’t magically fix these issues, many sociological experiments on undergraduate populations link stronger social bonds to myriad positive outcomes, including but not limited to increased student happiness, improved levels of student well-being, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and more successful career outcomes post-graduation.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that encouraged socialization in the classroom can lead to more casual conversation and foster friendships outside of the classroom’s confines, creating a stronger and healthier community in the process.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, I advocate for Columbia professors opening a dialogue around the efficacy of the lecture course and opening their classrooms to experimental techniques. Decades of support from educational research combined with exciting new evidence from the emerging field of neuroeducation combine to form a compelling case for social learning.

A small amount of effort in redesigning course curricula and pre-recording lecture segments can pay off in happier, more engaged students who are not only excited to learn, but can also retain information better and for longer. For both professors and students, incorporating social learning in the classroom is a win-win.
*While based in pre-existing research, the hypothesis about social learning put forth is my own original work and is further explained in a long-form scientific article (The Case for Social Learning). Contact the author for further information.