It’s time to tackle perfectionism head-on in the classroom

Perfectionism has long been the norm in academia. To combat it, we must offer help before it has to be asked for, say Maggie Melo and Laura March


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
9 Dec 2021
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Perfectionism has long been an affliction in academia for students and faculty alike

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We’re now approaching the end of the semester, and the rhythms of this season are riddled with looming deadlines, anxiety and self-doubt. Despite perfectionism being a norm in academia, the pandemic has heightened stress and feelings of inadequacy for students and faculty alike. We are usually on top of our game (or feel like we are), but the pandemic has continued throwing unexpected curveballs this year. And instead of recognising these environmental and systemic hindrances for what they are, we are observing students and faculty double down on self-criticism – centring their inability to write and/or teach as a personal shortcoming.

On the whole, we’ve seen colleagues and students express a willingness to meet each other where they are. However, despite their best intentions, they often tell each other to “reach out if you need anything”. We’ve all done this. I (Maggie Melo) told my research team to let me know how I could support them, and I received a pointed response from PhD candidate, advisee and my co-author on this piece, Laura March: “Instead of telling me to reach out, tell me what’s on the table.”

This piece aims to do exactly that and also provide three specific approaches to combat debilitating perfectionism from both faculty and student perspectives.

Tell students what’s on the table 

Perfectionism often inhibits students from asking for extensions, seeking assignment modifications and making other requests. Instead of waiting for student feedback, offer specific options: we can adapt assignments; we can broaden or narrow the scope of an assignment; we can create/modify rubrics together, and so on.

Moreover, figure out ways to make coursework real-world relevant. In our recent paper, we found that authenticity encourages learning and facilitates reflection. If you’re unsure of concrete ways to start supporting students, you can use the “Stop, Start, Continue” feedback framework. We’ve asked students to respond (usually via Google Forms to maintain anonymity) to three short questions: What should we stop doing as a class? What should we deepen and continue doing? What should we start doing? Consider sharing results with students – and what you will change in the future – for full transparency (see point three, below).

Name perfectionism 

Perfectionism is often seen as a personal shortcoming, but in fact it is a symptom of larger societal issues. Decoupling perfectionism from the individual requires acknowledging the systemic, structural and social pressures of the world. We must recognise how it shows up personally and manifests within the classroom environment. Consider sharing your own perfectionist tendencies (but of course this advice is broad and has different implications for faculty from marginalised communities).

Similarly, consider how your own work may contribute to unrealistic expectations. We know that instructors teach the way they were taught, regardless of effectiveness. And the same for managing PhD students. Yes, as graduate students and faculty, we were clearly able to successfully navigate this – but that doesn’t mean we should continue flawed traditions. 

Make assessment an ongoing, transparent conversation 

Grades and other external metrics have often been, unfortunately, tied to a student’s sense of worth. One graduate student in our research lab urged us to remember: “Good grades don’t make you a good person.” Similarly, a student at the University of Toronto described how our perception of self becomes inseparable from grades. Yet Albert Einstein famously flunked his first college entrance exam, while the internet is full of listicles detailing household names who failed before succeeding in a big way. 

Consider lowering the stakes through formative grading for progress and labour rather than the final product. Or create an opportunity for radical assessment and pursue ungrading. And when it’s time to actually provide feedback, take advantage of technology when you can – you don’t have to spend hours printing out papers and marking them up with red pens (unless you enjoy that).

Consider making short audio clips or screen recordings of yourself as you review work and talk through your feedback. This can be done through tools such as VoiceThread and uploaded as an attachment or directly through your school’s learning management system. A review of qualitative studies on alternative feedback (including audio and/or video assessments) found that this may help students better understand their evaluations and feel a stronger sense of belonging.

These three approaches were inspired by the current moment of flux and “languishing” inspired by the pandemic. Earlier we mentioned our recently published article on makerspace curricula, which detailed the debilitating effects of perfectionism on learning and exploring open-ended assignments.

Reading parts of the piece now (it was first written in 2019) felt anachronistic: holding space for creative risk and learning seems tortuous in a classroom environment where even the basic activities are difficult to achieve. Yet we continue to believe in the importance of authentic assessment – not just as it applies to developing curricula but also in addressing perfectionism.

Proactive, candid and transparent approaches provide opportunities to cope with perfectionism – which feels doubly important to push back against during ongoing mental health crises and personal and communal grief related to the pandemic.

Laura March is a PhD candidate and digital dissertation fellow at Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Maggie Melo is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches inclusion and equity in learning


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