A recent Blog post by Eugene Wallingford raises the issue that students often perform according to their perception of their abilities rather than their actual abilities. If a student performs better than their "natural abilities" suggest then all is well, of course. However some students do less well than they might simply because they think they aren't "smart enough" to do better.

It is a well-known phenomenon, at least in the US, that some students do poorly in math because they have the belief that "I can't do math." Often enough, however it is just lack of exposure or poor teaching that got them to that belief. It might even be a single bad experience. The same is likely true in other technical subjects. For that matter, it may be true in most subjects, but it may also be that the problem is more likely to be overlooked in, say, History.

The author of this believes that success comes from interest and hard work not natural ability, but that may not satisfy many students. In fact, saying "you just need to work harder" may increase their frustration, rather than their confidence.

Of course a self-perceived lack of ability can easily lead to a lack of interest.

The question, then, is:

What can the instructor do to overcome feelings in the students that being a CS Superstar simply isn't in their future, and so help them not settle for less than they might achieve?

Some ideas might be interesting ways to speak to them, but hopefully many of you have seen this and have creative ways (exercises, teams, ..., anything) that can get a student to live beyond their self-perceived limitations.

Authenticity Bias is a common phenomenon in recently promoted professionals who have new responsibilities. It is the sense of being a fraud in their new position. "This isn't me, I'm playing a role." Often the role demands behavior different from what they are comfortable with. Many, however, have found that not accepting the new role is a path to failure. Falling back on old habits, "the real me" simply fails in the new role.

On the other hand, playing the new role consciously for a while can lead to a "new me", overcoming the Authenticity Bias.

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    $\begingroup$ Quote attributed to Henry Ford: "When you say you can, or you say you can't, you are absolutely right." That was on the wall in the tiny 'office' (literally a 3 foot wide space between walls) of my elementary school Gym Teacher, who still stands out in my memory as great. $\endgroup$
    – user737
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Smile like you mean it, and fake it until you make it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ What's the difference between authenticity bias and imposter syndrome (besides the fact that only the latter has a Wikipedia article)? $\endgroup$
    – jwodder
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ @jwodder My interpretation of the differences: 1. Naturalness bias (what the article actually discusses) refers to the belief that one's success depends primarily on innate ability. This belief may or may not be part of imposter syndrome. 2. Imposter syndrome is more common at higher levels when one has nominally achieved some success (admission to a graduate program, a prestigious job), while Buffy is describing an earlier stage in students' lives. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 21:04

5 Answers 5


First, your classroom needs to be comfortable.

No one's going to do well if they fear being called nerdy or some such nonsense. I myself have unfortunately been insulted along those lines, and though I ignored them (I figured, well, I've got better grades than them, so probably a good thing) it was hard to.

Second, start small, work up.

When I first started trying to teach myself things that I didn't just come across in pop-science books, it was hard. Really hard. But it's gotten easier as I've gone along, so I've started tackling more ambitious projects. No one's first program is a complete GUI in assembly with some animations to boot (exaggerating, but you see my point).

If someone's been beating themselves up personally for a lifetime, it's gonna be hard to change. So start by giving them little things. "Go teach so-and-so about your method." "Try this problem, I know you can do it." Do it in private so any failures aren't public. Slowly build up their confidence. And one day they'll walk into class and rock that exam. And they'll feel on top of the world.

Third, consider out-of-classroom problems.

Unfortunately, it's a sad reality that not everyone's home life is good. Families are poor, broken, or otherwise messed up, and that can rub off on people. If someone's been insulted their entire life - well, that's hard to change. Connect such students with counselors, and build them up as much as you can.

Fourth, show them your own failures.

Others have already said this, but I'll say it again. I get annoyed when all this buzz is made about child geniuses and their magic talents. Yes, they're smart. But no story ever shows the hours of practice and work that went into it. No one ever walked up to a piano for the first time and aced a concerto. They started with Chopsticks, and 10,000+ hours later, they were playing their own composition at Carnegie Hall. No one ever walked up to a computer the first time (not Bill Gates, not Steve Wozniak, not Mark Zuckerberg, not anyone) and wrote an operating system or search engine. They started with Hello World.

Show them how real people actually operate. We start somewhere. We work hard, we advance, we make mistakes along the way, and we advance some more. None of this magic wand stuff. Things that are worth doing are hard. They require work. Every time I've put effort into something, significant effort, I've been proud of the result.

Finally - show them off.

Show everyone the amazing work they've done. Brag on them. They're your students, they're surviving your class, they've come this far. They're worth it.


Share their own struggles. Period. The instructor can start dispelling the myth by sharing his/her own story (replete with self-doubt, struggle, and frustration most likely) about studying computer science.

In Harvard's CS50 course, the professor shares his experience of not starting as a CS major and of essentially taking CS50 himself pass/fail. That's in the first lecture and communicates an important message about his journey not being one of simply innate talent. In another MOOC I've referenced before (Programming Languages from UW), the professor points out that he didn't write a line of code before college. As a student in each course through edX and Coursera, respectively, these small windows into the journeys of the professors has boosted my own confidence that one does not to be fluent in assembly at age 10 (exaggeration) to be a skilled programmer/computer scientist.

I share with students my own long and winding road that led me to CS. I share with them what I continue to study in my free time. I display old, poorly-written code. I recall one instance from teaching last year when I was trying to communicate to students how important it is to read program specifications and language documentation extremely carefully. From a homework assignment for Programming Languages, Part A, I kept figuratively banging my head against the desk because I was sure my logic and code were right, but I wasn't passing the checker. The problem: I was misunderstanding how a library function was working. Once I re-read the documentation and realized my error, the fix was trivial. Moments like this happen to everyone at every level of ability. Everyone struggles with something at some point.

Students need to see that the person teaching them is fallible, and that his/her knowledge has been gained through a lot of "blood, sweat, and tears," not because he/she wrote C code at age 5 (exaggeration again!) and never had a problem learning anything thereafter.

I also find some of the stories from freeCodeCamp inspiring. Their forum and Medium blog are filled with examples of individuals making career changes, working hard for an extended period of time, and achieving some level of "success."

The bottom line: find stories to share that show students there are more people feeling what they feel than they might first imagine. Prove to them that computer science rewards hard work, discipline, and focus. In my mind, that starts with the person in the front of the room sharing his/her journey.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I've done that, and it works. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 17:59

Give the grade not yet, when they don't pass.

Don't give grades that they can compare with each other.

Praise effort, strategy, progress “This is an interesting strategy”, do not praise achievement.

Tell them, that every time that they push outside of the comfort zone, they will grow more neurons, and they will get smarter.

Transform the meaning of effort and difficulty: from meaning “I am stupid” to meaning “I am leaning, I am getting smarter, I am trying hard.”

Telling people to work harder does not work: instead tell them what it means when they are breathing hard, hot, sweating. This means that they are getting stronger, getting fitter. People that are fitter, have higher heart rates when exercising, but as you get fitter you will find that your heart rate returns to normal quicker.

All of these come from Carol Dweck — mostly from her TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve She has done much research, written papers and done talks, that are worth reading/watching/listening to.

See also Austin's Butterfly — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms this shows how doing multiple drafts, not giving up, can make a big big difference.

  • $\begingroup$ "not yet" is an interesting concept. I normally allow do-overs as a regular part of grading. Similar, but not quite the same. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ You could save a lot of time by just issuing everyone with a pass certificate before they start the course. As you might guess, I have no sympathy whatever with this happy-clappy approach to education. As preparation for adult life, it's totally inappropriate IMO. If Socrates was killed for "corrupting youth", there's a whole generation of happy-clappy teachers who should face the same fate! $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @alephzero I see that you have not watched the video or read her papers. In the video she say that we need to stop, praising pupils, the have a whole generation of people that can not do a days work with out being praised. As for your first point, her approach is about teaching, not measuring. This give them a certificate at the start, is because you thing that school is for measuring people, so that employers know who to hire. Where as she is talking about how best to create improvement in people. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @nocomprende, That seem fair, we don't want bias. However if we have this “fixed mind set”, then we do not grow, and we get what we expect. But if we have “growth mind set”, then we learn, and are often surprised at what we and our students can do. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 15:49

When I want a student to look something up or learn something new on their own, I find that they resist that task, often because they think what I'm asking them to do is challenging. I have found that framing the task with specifics such as "I read through that tutorial myself last week and it took me about an hour to do the task" helps students understand that it is something that they will have to work through (meaning it's not a one-step task), but that there is an end in sight. I usually throw in "if you aren't finished in an hour, see me". If the task is easy, I tell them so. If the task is challenging, I tell them that too, so that they know what to expect. What I'm trying to say here is that I believe my students think that CS should come easy to them and they don't realize that "the expert in anything was once a beginner". (I have that poster on my wall!) Learning to program is a process.


I like your quote:

"This isn't me, I am playing a role."

Thinking that has saved me from despair on so many occasions... I have been wondering in my work how to "teach abstraction", and it turns out to be the case that it is not possible. If success in programming (let alone all the other areas of CS) is based on being able to think symbolically and abstractly (whatever that means), then we have to face the fact that apparently, this key skill can be learned, but it is not innate (so say that to all of your students!) and cannot be taught either (so say that too). (I should have written this in Lisp, I guess().:)

It turns out that adults cannot grow significantly in their ability to think abstractly (just humor me for a moment on the can't) and that only about 30% of adults ever get to that stage. But most people can. How? Well, they have to have the right sort of education between age 7 and 12, while they are in the Concrete Operations stage. That is when they can learn the basis for Formal Operations - while they are mastering concrete thought! This age range is a "critical period" or "window of opportunity", like in learning a spoken language: if not done by age 10, it ain't gonna happen. So, to have anything to offer students, we must ensure that they have or will start learning abstract thinking... in Elementary School! Yes! No exceptions.

If that is the case, then I would take these 12 year olds out to Golden Corral (cheap buffet restaurant in my area of the world), give them a nice meal, and then say to them:

Life is a buffet, like this restaurant, and we all start out with nothing in our heads and are responsible for everything that goes in to them. Not enough in, nothing much out. You have as much right to anything here as anyone else, no one is special in this restaurant, and no one is special in life. You can become what you choose to, but just like cooking up all this food, it will be long hard work.

Then I would say to them that given that they will become what they work towards right now, at this age, with less chance of changing or growing later (once they have to support themselves) then they should look around at the smorgasbord of work that is available, and pick what they want to be, because they could be most anything. If they don't want to end up working at a restaurant or mowing lawns, they had best apply themselves to what they really do want.

The biggest mystery to me with young people is that most of them seem to have no idea what they want from life. We have seriously let them down in this regard. I am playing a role. I have been since I could think what a role is. I choose my role and my approach to it. There is no "real world" or authentic self. It is all a fabrication, so be earnest and work hard at crafting a self. No one else will do it for you.


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