October 28th, 2013

Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom


students reading

Introverts. Who are they and how do we ensure they thrive in active learning classrooms? If you have ever come to the midterm point of the semester and graded a stellar paper of a student whose name you don’t recognize and who has never raised her hand in class, you may have just identified an introvert in your classroom.

In every classroom there are a significant proportion of students who would identify themselves as introverts, if they understood what that term meant. Originally conceived by Carl Jung, the concepts of introversion and extroversion have been helpful ways of understanding basic differences in human temperament (Jung, 1970). Often confused with shyness, introversion is an aspect of personality which affects how we engage in social activity and our preferences for learning. Unlike extroverts, who typically are energized by social interaction, introverts can find connecting with large groups of unfamiliar people exhausting. They may have excellent social skills and enjoy meaningful friendships, but are quite happy in their own company.

In an academic environment, introverts may prefer to work completely alone and discover their best ideas in solitude. They are likely to be comfortable in a lecture hall; listening and learning without the demands of engaging with others. But what we know about learning suggests that this passive mode of learning has its limitations, so many of us infuse our classrooms with more active learning strategies.

So how do we respect introverts’ needs amidst all of this active learning? The very first class is an excellent time to establish participation norms and to create a classroom climate that supports introverts in their learning. An activity where students work with a partner is likely to fall within the comfort zone of even the most introverted student, and it still communicates that active participation is both an expectation and a benefit for learning. Whether it is having pairs of students review the syllabus and come up with questions for clarification, or inviting pairs to identify what they most want to learn in the course, working with a partner right from the beginning will create at least one personal contact for the introverted student who, left to his own devices, might sit through an entire semester completely on his own.

When students are expected to apply concepts, analyze material, or solve problems, small group learning activities might be the ideal strategy to implement. In small group discussions, introverts typically prefer to listen first, gather their thoughts before they speak, and may be gifted in synthesizing the ideas communicated by others. In an effort to support introverted students, some faculty members have adopted the practice of assigning roles to group members. However, be wary of always assigning the introvert the role of group recorder; this can inadvertently communicate that their ideas are not a valuable part of the activity.

As Susan Cain suggests in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, it’s not always the biggest talkers who have the best ideas! (Cain, 2012) When students are encouraged to explore and discover the variable skills of group members, they may come to the realization that the “quieter” member who takes time to process before speaking has unique contributions to the group’s efforts. Well-designed small group learning experiences draw on the skills of all group members rather than creating situations where the most extroverted and gregarious students control the learning.

If your syllabus has a participation policy that rewards students for verbal comments made in large classes, consider the implications. For students who enjoy speaking in front of others and for whom talking out loud is a way of discovering what they are thinking, this can be an opportunity to gain “easy points.” Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced the “overparticipator” who monopolizes the discussion without adding real value. On the other hand, there may be students who will never voluntarily raise their hand in a large lecture hall, yet do have contributions to make to the discussion.

Create learning and assessment strategies that recognize the various ways students can make quality contributions to their own and others’ learning. Even a simple shift of giving students time to think and discuss a concept with a partner before throwing the conversation out to the large group can alter this dynamic. With time to think, and an opportunity to try an idea out with a partner, some students will be more willing to share with the large group. An online discussion environment is another avenue that gives students time to gather their thoughts before expressing them in writing. Given some choice and input, students might choose to have their participation grade based on verbal contributions in class, written responses in an online discussion forum, or a series of journals or reflection papers. Providing a range of opportunities for demonstrating “participation” and creating some flexibility and choice in how participation is assessed is a more equitable approach for all learners.

In many learning situations, introverts may need to stretch beyond their comfort zones, and they should be encouraged to do so, as should extroverts. Our goal is not to turn introverts into extroverts, or vice versa, but to maximize learning for all students and to help them develop the skills often identified by potential employers — teamwork, problem solving, and interpersonal communication. When designing learning activities for your classroom, consider the key elements of balance and choice in order to create a comfortable learning environment which also encourages all students to stretch and take risks.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a Word that Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown, 2012), 5

Carl G Jung, Psychological Types (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971)

Nicki Monahan is a Faculty Facilitator in the Staff & Organizational Development Department at George Brown College, Toronto, Canada.

  • ATM

    My complaint with the recent talk about introversion is that students can practice thoughtful reflection on their own literally any other time of the day. Any out-of-class reading or writing assignment caters directly to this skill. Even office hours are a good time for an introverted student to return when their thoughts are more fully-formed. There are, however, only three hours each week where, by some miracle, the entire class has assembled to the same location. These moments should be packed full of opportunities to practice effective communication, should they not?

    • Although it's true that students may have only three hours per week in your course, consider the number of course hours they are spending interacting with others in total. As an introvert myself, it can take me an hour to 'decompress' after a strongly interactive class. With some students spending upward of nine hours per day in class, I imagine this takes a toll on our introverts.

  • ABA

    Introverts do not need long periods of time to contemplate, meerly a moment to synthesize and reflect. They think things through before speaking. You could call on them after giving a moment for all to think, after asking another person first, allowing brief discussion with a partner as the article suggests or they can enter comment on whitebaord if school is equipped.

    • ATM

      "Introverts do not need long periods of time to contemplate, meerly a moment to synthesize and reflect."

      I think everyone but the most extreme extrovert needs a *moment* to reflect. This doesn't seem to be a special consideration for introversion.

  • Paul

    When a learning portal is part of the course, all are able (and required in my courses) to post notes that are substantive and it should not be surprising that this 'tool' changes the exchange of ideas and insights and engages students differently. Those who find that classroom discussions fit or do not fit their conversation style on course content, approach these discussion threads (course blogging) in a fashion that seems to engage those who appear at times to be reserved.

  • Pingback: OTR Links 10/30/2013 | doug --- off the record()

  • howard doughty

    I do wish people would spend more time thinking about the content of curricula than about making accommodations and offering therapeutic alternatives to students who don't talk, who talk too much, who don't or can't pay attention, whose feelings might be hurt if some political or religious opinion was expressed and so on.

    Sometime in the last half century or so (I know, because I entered my first university class fifty years, and two months ago), we seem to have altered the meaning of education. It now has become largely a market-driven exercise in vocational training and psychological adjustment.

    My professors did not try to be my friends (though some became them). They did not fret about my emotional well-being. They assumed that, if I was bored, it was because "I" was boring. They expected a modicum of respect both for themselves and their subject matter. They believed that I was there to learn from them, not to negotiate course content based on whatever passing interest might have attracted me. They certainly didn't inflate my grades in order to get increased government funding and they didn't live in fear of student assessments. They didn't give a damn about being popular and they displayed integrity by being true to their disciplines.

    Good for them!

    Now, as I draw toward the end of my own teaching career, I watch as much as possible with rancorless disenchantment, but also with occasional disgust and rage as:

    curricula are commodified;
    vocationalism trumps education;
    the social organization of work in academic institutions is increasing modeled on corporate practices;
    scholarship is abandoned in favor of "interactive learning";
    textbooks replace original sources and then get "dumbed down";
    online courses, MOOCs and other abbreviated learning experiences proliferate;
    the value of a certificate, diploma or degree is judged exclusively on the starting wages of graduates;
    corporate interests – both private and public – dictate research grants;
    critical pedagogy is marginalized and "group-think" is encouraged;
    instrumental reasoning replaces reflection;
    mastery of human and non-human nature abolishes emancipation; and
    postsecondary institutions become the ideological hand-maidens to pathological levels of economic greed, ecological degradation, political alienation with Associate Professors being transformed into Walmart Associates.

    Welcome to K-Mart Kollege and "Have a Great Day!" – we insist …

    • ATM

      People do think about the content of curricula, but they don't post about it on general-interest fora like Faculty Focus, nor would it be appropriate to do so.

      • howard doughty

        I am not asking them to (though I don't think it would be inappropriate).

        What annoys me is that the prattle on about it endlessly in corridors, faculty meetings and over otherwise tolerable light meals. Worse, academic administrators who increasingly resemble McDonalds managers or, at good schools, ad agents, make such concerns mandatory as curriculum and the academic pursuits that sustain it get flushed down the memory hole.

  • Pingback: The Flipped Classroom: Tips for Integrating Moments of Reflection - GWC Staff Development()

  • Pingback: Lesson Planning | A Journey into Learning()

  • Pingback: The Sound of Silence: The Value of Quiet Contemplation in the Classroom | Center for Teaching and Learning()

  • Pingback: Class Participation | Reflections of a Computer Business Systems Instructor()

  • Pingback: Are we helping introvert students succeed? | Augie Prof in Progress()

  • Pingback: Building a Culture of Inquiry | This is my Chalkboard()

  • AllysonVing

    I used to be more of a antisocial person when it came to communicating within a larger school setting and we have done a few of these tips and it worked out great for me! I have no problem public speaking now and I actual welcome it! We recently wrote a post regarding why active listening is the best form of teaching, you should check us out! http://vingapp.com/teaching-active-listening-can-

  • Pingback: Encouraging introverts to thrive | Introverts in the classroom()

  • Pingback: Introverts | Markparkinson's Blog()

  • Pingback: Introversion is the new black | teachinglearning4life()

  • Pingback: Creating space for the quiet voices | teachinglearning4life()

  • Pingback: Introverts in Nursing – does it work? | PIDP Blog()

  • Pingback: “Preparing Curriculum for Learners who are Introverts” | lisamarie773()

  • Pingback: Introverts | Lorna's Blog()