Impression management refers to the process in which individuals attempt to influence the opinions or perceptions others hold of them. Impression management, also referred to as self-presentation, is a goal-directed activity that helps to establish the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior; conversely, it also aids in defining what behavior will be met with disapproval. In the classroom, impression management behaviors allow students to make sense of the complex social stratum and help to inform their social identities.


Writings on impression management were introduced by Goffman (1959). In his seminal book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman shows that the individual is influenced by his or her environment and the perceived audience. Furthermore Goffman posits that the objective of individuals is to convey an image that is consistent with their desired goal (spoken or unspoken). While Goffman's theory is constructive (impressions can influence how individuals perceive themselves), Jones and his colleagues (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Jones & Wortman, 1972) championed strategic self-presentation. Strategic impression management emphasizes the power dynamics and goals that characterize most social interactions. Jones (1990) suggested that the goals or motives in strategic impression management are aimed at negotiating the power dynamics in social relationships such that the individual's power is never diminished.

Leary and Kowalski (1990) elaborated on the work of Goffman (1959) and Jones and his colleagues. Leary and Kowalski's (1990) model is distinctive, in that it elucidates reasons why people are concerned with others' impressions and why they choose to engage in specific impression management behaviors. Though other conceptualizations of impression management did not draw such a distinction, Leary and Kowalski's model posits that impression management is comprised of two distinct processes: impression motivation and impression construction. Impression motivation, they argue, is a function of several factors (goal-relevance, value of desired outcomes, discrepancy between desired image and current image) that determine whether or not an individual will engage in impression-related attempts. Goal relevance refers to whether or not one's actions are salient to obtaining prescribed goals. Value of desired goals refers to the importance placed on obtaining a particular goal; the value increases as the number of available desired objects decreases. The discrepancy between the desired image and the current image refers to the individual's perception of the closeness between the image others hold and the image he or she wants others to hold.

The second process, impression construction, is influenced by two intrapersonal and three interpersonal factors. Self-concept and desired image constitute the intrapersonal variables; role constraints, target values, and current or potential social image represent the interpersonal variables. Leary and Kowalski asserted that the self-concept variable is the chief impetus of a learner's impressions. Accordingly, students will display what they believe is their greatest asset. Thus, if academics do not constitute the best part of their self-concept, impression management for academic diligence will be low. Furthermore, the motivation to impression manage will be influenced by not only what the students think they are, but what they would like to be and not be; this refers to the second intrapersonal variable, desired and unde-sired identity image. It appears that attempts to impression manage are, in part, a function of the interaction between these two components. As mentioned above, three interpersonal variables also contribute to impression construction. The role constraint variable suggests that individuals who act in a manner that is inconsistent with social expectations risk losing the power associated with that position. The second interpersonal variable, target values, indicates that an individual will often modify or change his or her image so that it corresponds to an assumed value of a model. Lastly, current or potential image, states that impressions are further shaped by learners' perception of how they are presently perceived and how they believe others will see them in the future.


Impression management theory provides a useful framework for understanding students' behavior in classroom situations. Studies on impression management generally indicate that academic diligence or effort is likely when individuals perceives their image as consistent with expectations of being academically competent and that the rewards of projecting such an image are greater than its possible repercussions. Research has demonstrated that if the potential repercussions of projecting an academically diligent image are sufficiently threatening, the student is less likely to project that image. The presence of multiple (and often competing) audiences necessitates an individual student's need to consider what image he or she is willing to project. It has become increasingly evident that classrooms are more than just academic environments; they are also social settings in which students must negotiate the demands/expectations of multiple audiences: the teacher and other students. While research has consistently demonstrated that teachers value and reward students who exhibit academic effort, peer groups, especially the “popular crowds,” tend to ostracize those students whose identity or image is based largely on academic effort. Thus, while teachers possess legitimate power over the student, popular peers possess referent power, both of which are instrumental in determining the impression a student projects.


Studies on impression management have also indicated that development affects impression management. One key assumption of the Leary and Kowalski (1990) model (as well as other explanations of impression management) is that the student must possess the ability to analyze potential interactions (including understanding what others value) and the ability to take another's perspective. Selman (1980) labeled these abilities as Level 3 perspective taking and argued that these abilities do not generally manifest until middle and junior high school years. However, a number of researchers have demonstrated that these abilities develop earlier than Selman (1980) argued. In their study of fourth, sixth and eighth grade students, Juvonen and Murdock (1995) found that younger students were able to demonstrate an understanding of the expectations of others. Another significant developmental difference identified by the authors was that older students, and not younger ones, modified their explanations of effort based on intended audience. What this finding seems to suggest is that while younger students are aware of what others expect, their perception that other students' and teachers' values are congruent represents a lack of understanding of the complexity of multiple audiences. Thus, it appears that the impression strategy a student employs is significantly influenced by cognitive development.

Though Juvonen and Murdock (1995) did not observe significant differences between males and females, gender differences in impression management related to academic diligence have consistently indicated that females are more likely than males to present an image that conveys a desire to be seen as conscientious of academic activities (Grabill, Lasane, Povitsky, Saxe, Munro, Phelps, & Straub, 2005). That this finding has been consistently reported is not surprising. Although academic achievement is seen as a masculine trait, this seems to apply only to one's natural abilities; effort (diligence) is largely viewed as a feminine characteristic. Impression management theory posits that since achievement with effort (compared to “natural” achievement) is by and large a feminine quality, most males would prefer to project images that would not call into question their masculinity for fear of disapproval.

Though few studies have explicitly investigated ethnic differences in impression management, it has been argued that many minority students (particularly African Americans) view academic diligence differently from Caucasian students. Several researchers (e.g., Czopp, Lasane, Swigard, Bradshaw & Hammer, 1998; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986) have reported that African American students attempt to conceal their academic selves for fear of social disapproval; instead, many of these students project an impression consistent with “Joe Cool,” an image that is less concerned with academic effort. Furthermore, studies have suggested that the impression that some minority students adopt is based on the belief that academic diligence is a mostly “White” phenomenon; thus, to project an academic-conscious image would be perceived as denying one's culture. Though this theory has received considerable attention, additional research is warranted.


The ability of educators to recognize and acknowledge the effects of impression management on academic performance has important, yet feasible, implications for their ability to work effectively with diverse student populations. Foremost, educators need to actively and aggressively diversify the teacher pool. Administrators communicate to students their attitudes regarding academic achievement through those persons whom they hire to educate. Thus, there needs to be fair representation of men and women in academically rigorous courses as well as less academically rigorous ones. To that end, all physical education classes cannot be taught by Mr. Jones and not all of the language arts classes should be taught by Mrs. Smith.

Second, teachers are encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes towards students who tend to display academically disidentified behaviors. As research suggests, students' struggles with the problem of multiple audiences, for example, may manifest as academically disidentified (Osborne, 1995) or unconcerned behavior; this manifestation may, in turn, prejudice teacher-student interactions, particularly evaluations. It is possible (and likely) that unexamined attitudes could lead to interactions that result in negative evaluations, thus reinforcing an adversarial relationship with academically minded individuals and fostering a negative association with academic-related activities.

Lastly, teachers need to realize that students do contemplate the challenges of negotiating beliefs and stereotypes related to academic diligence. Teachers might consider purposefully addressing this issue with students in an effort to monitor and correct any detrimental views students may harbor. Also, an added benefit to this practice is that students may become more engaged in the learning process and, as research has indicated, students who are engaged in the learning process tend to evidence more positive long-term consequences.


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