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Test Difficulty and Class Year Effects on Impostor Phenomenon



Impostor Phenomenon, Test Difficulty, Class Year

Presented by:

Sérgio P. da Silva, Cornerstone University

William Vanden Berge, Cornerstone University
Sophie Hawke, Cornerstone University

Key Statement:

We investigated whether the interaction between test difficulty and college level elicit short-term differences in college students’ levels of impostor phenomenon.


Ninety-six college students (57 lower-class, 39 upper-class) were randomly assigned to an imagery task requiring participants to imagine either an easy or a difficult test situation. We administered the Clance Impostor Phenomenon scale before and after the imagery task. A 2 (test difficulty) X 2 (class year) factorial analysis of variance showed no significant interaction between difficulty and class year. However, there was a significant main effect of test difficulty, explained by a significant increase in mean difference Impostor Phenomenon scores of students in the difficult test condition, but only of upper-class students in this condition.

Learning Outcomes:

Describe the effect of students’ perception of test difficulty on the Impostor Phenomenon. 

Describe the effect of students’ class level on the Impostor Phenomenon. 

Articulate one strategy to help diffuse the cognitive effects of test difficulty on students sense of being impostors.

Hear it from the author:

Test Difficulty and Class Year Effects on Impostor PhenomenonSérgio P. da Silva, Cornerstone University
00:00 / 01:34


Many students experience a sense that they are fake, that is, that they are only pretending to be academically competent. This elicits anxiety—an effect called the Impostor Phenomenon. We administered the Impostor Phenomenon Scale to 57 freshman and sophomore students and 39 junior and senior students at the beginning of the experiment. Then we assigned them randomly to imagine that they were expecting an easy or a difficult test. After this imagery exercise, we measured the Impostor Phenomenon again.

Only the difficult test expectation condition elicited a significant increase in the students’ sense of being impostors. Only Junior and Senior students showed a significant increase in Impostor Phenomenon.
These results demonstrate short-term changes in students’ Impostor Phenomenon associated with perception of difficulty. This effect seems to be more salient in students with more years of college experience. These findings suggest that emphasizing the difficulty of examination may foster a sense of knowledge- related insecurity and anxiety.


Davis, H. A., DiStefano, C., & Schutz, P. A. (2008). Identifying patterns of appraising tests in first-year college students: Implications for anxiety and emotion regulation during test taking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 942–960.

Dykema, J., Krause, H., & da Silva, S. P. (2022, October 12–14). Why do good students believe they are impostors [Poster]? ITLC Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and Learning, Traverse City, MI. 

Maftei, A., Dumitriu, A., & Holman, A.-C. (2021). ”They will discover I’m a fraud!” The imposter syndrome among psychology students. Studia Psychologica, 63(4), 337–351.

Theobald, M., Breitwieser, J., & Brod, G. (2022). Test anxiety does not predict exam performance when knowledge is controlled for: Strong evidence against the interference yypothesis of test anxiety. Psychological Science, 33(12).

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