Supporting introverts in the classroom

Challenging Traditional Pedagogy

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Illustrated by Robby Day

Much of the current curriculum in the classroom seems to be geared toward extroverts. It can be challenging for introverts to share during class discussions, making their silent efforts feel undervalued for the nonverbal contributions made.

One difference between extroverts and introverts is their vocality. Extroverts are people who are more talkative and social, while introverts are individuals who prefer or are more comfortable being private and quiet.

This trend of preference for extroversion in the classroom seems to be prevalent not only in university classrooms across the United States, but in the UK, China and all around the globe, according to Times Higher Education. For example, in Canada, in university-level arts and humanities courses, class participation makes up anywhere from 10–35 percent of the overall grade, and participation can be worth a massive 40 percent of the overall grade in seminars. If you’re an introverted student, it could take a heavy toll on your GPA.

Plus, if you aren’t contributing to class in any clearly observable way, such as raising your hand or giving a presentation, not only may your grade go down, but you may be perceived as a student who is not engaged or hardworking. But what about the less observable ways students show they’re learning, such as nodding while others are speaking, taking notes and turning in assignments that reflect a deep understanding of the subject matter?  

Many professors claim that extroverted work is necessary because it prepares introverts for the real world, which means working in groups and presenting your ideas vocally. Though it true to an extent that being able to put on an extroverted face is an important life skill, professors rarely ever find an appropriate balance between challenging introverted students and supporting them.

“If you are constantly challenging them but not providing any support, they’re probably not going to learn,” said Karen Haley, an associate professor in the graduate school of education. “If you’re only about support and helping them but not challenging them, how far are they going to take that?”

Haley said during class discussions, she often gives students quiet time, or she divides them into groups of two or three before they respond to her questions. According to Haley, while extroverts often think out loud and need to raise their hand and talk to process information, introverts might need more time to themselves or in small groups to fully process the question and think about what they might say beforehand to lessen their potential anxiety.  

Other professors have shown a similarly sensitive and proactive approach toward introversion in the classroom. “My approach to student shyness aims for empathy while also recognizing that oral communication skills are critical for success in the workplace,” said Madeline Morrison, recent doctoral graduate in history at Carleton University. On the first day of class, she said she asks introverted students to identify themselves to her over email so she can work out a way to accommodate them. Often this involves these students sending her a short reflective blurb before each seminar to count toward, though not completely replace, their oral participation grade.

Morrison also encourages introverts to visit during office hours to test run some ideas with her in an intellectual but non-threatening environment.

“Students with intellectual shyness often want confirmation that their ideas are right even though they invariably present thoughtful critiques,” Morrison said.

Introversion consists of a few different factors. Academic introversion can be divided into either a fear of the delivery of ideas, a fear of ideas being wrong or both.

“I have ideas for what’s happening in class, but I just can’t say them,” said PSU student Kylie Nelson, who identifies as an introvert. Similar to Nelson, many introverted students have more trouble sharing their opinions than forming them.

Surprisingly enough, Nelson claims she’s more likely to speak up when participation isn’t mandatory. “I’ll say less quality stuff if I’m speaking up only to get my points,” Nelson said. “If it’s a topic I care enough about or I’m interested in, I wouldn’t be as quiet.”

Perhaps the best way to engage introverts in class discussion is not to force them but to encourage them in other ways.

Academia should be designing ways not only to help introverts share their thoughts out loud, but also to be more appreciative of the understated contributions they make, since the challenge they face sharing their ideas should be taken into account.

Introverts have different scholastic needs and desires than extroverts, and everyone should have a right to an education that fits their learning style.  

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