August 2nd, 2011

Shy Students in the College Classroom: What Does it Take to Improve Participation?


When I was in college I never raised my hand. Never. I didn’t raise my hand when I thought I knew the answer. I didn’t raise my hand even when I knew the answer with 100% absolute certainty. And I didn’t raise my hand when the professor was practically pleading for someone, anyone, to please participate.

Yet, I was a good student. I paid attention, took copious notes, studied hard, and earned good grades. But I was also quite shy and therefore perfectly happy to never open my mouth in class. In fact, for the first few semesters in college I didn’t volunteer a single answer and prayed my professors wouldn’t call on me. Then one day as I was leaving class, Professor Roberts came over and asked if I had a few minutes to chat. Ut-oh.

My mind raced … what could this be about? Did I mess up on the last exam? No, that couldn’t be it, I felt pretty good about that one … and I was totally prepared for the essay question on Gorbechev’s economic policies. Yeah, I aced that test, so what could he possibly want?

Professor Roberts says “Mary, you’re one my best students, you always do well on the tests and your papers are well-written…”

At this point I’m thinking, OK, so what’s the problem then?

And then he says, “It’s just that I wish you would participate in class.”

Ah, that.

“I’m shy,” I reply, stating the obvious.

“Yes, I know,” he says with a smile, “but I also think you have a lot to offer the class, and it’s obvious you come to class prepared. I’d like to help you get more comfortable speaking in class. What do you think about that?”

What do I think about that? Hmmm.

I wanted to say, “Well, I think I can get an A whether I participate or not.” But I didn’t. I liked Professor Roberts. From the very first day of class you could tell he liked being a teacher, and although his jokes were a little corny and he assigned a ton of reading, he was generally considered “one of the good guys” by pretty much anyone who took his class and was willing to put forth the effort he expected of his students.

So I nodded hesitantly, and he explained his plan. For the next few weeks, during his lecture he would weave in a question straight from the reading and look directly at me. If I knew the answer, I’d raise my hand for him to call on me. At first the questions were simple recall questions and required only a short answer. But as the semester progressed, the questions got more difficult and, much to my surprise, I found myself raising my hand even when Professor Roberts wasn’t looking my way.

That’s not to say that I was ever fully at ease participating in class, and as a reflective learner I still prefer to think about and process information before discussing it with others, but I felt I owed it to Professor Roberts to make an effort and take a few steps outside my comfort zone. I made good progress and little by little started participating in other classes as well. I ended up taking Professor Roberts for another course the following semester, and I’ll always consider him one of my favorite professors.

I learned recently that Professor Roberts had retired earlier this year. Although I hadn’t spoken to him in about 20 years, I sent him an email to wish him well in retirement and to let him know how much I enjoyed his courses. He wrote back a nice note, just as I knew he would, and remarked how affirming it is to hear from former students. I’m not sure he actually remembers me, he taught thousands of students during his career after all, but it really doesn’t matter. He’ll always be one of the good guys.

So when the new term starts, and you wonder whether it’s worth approaching those students who are hesitant to participate or who try to make themselves invisible in your class, I assure you it is. They will never become your most loquacious students, but almost all will appreciate that you’re taking an interest in their learning and hopefully some will even try to meet you halfway.

There are shy students in every classroom. How do you help these students step out of their comfort zones and participate in class? Please share your strategies or comments below.

  • tsasser

    One thing I do to help students like Mary, who like to reflect on and process a question, is to give students a list of potential discussion questions for the next class meeting. That way, they have time to think about their answers. Another technique that students have responded well to is placing desks in a circle (if the number of students allows) so that we're all facing each other. Then, I go through the list of questions and ask for volunteers who want to begin discussing each. If no one wants to discuss a question, then we skip it. But everyone has to contribute at least once, preferably on a voluntary basis.

  • marybart

    Thanks tsasser. These are both great suggestions for making class participation less intimidating.

  • I know I never raised my hand in front of 100-300 students. I think technology can be a great way to eliminate the fear to participate in class. I was a recent student at U-M-Ann Arbor and I am remember my lecture halls full of students.. I never had the courage to speak up. There are way that instructors can identify misconception in class or even have students ask questions electronically via student response systems or course management chat-rooms, these tools have the potential to provide a back channel for students during and after lecture, where even the teaching assistants can answer the questions as they arise without disrupting the flow of lecture.

    • marybart

      Thanks, Jason. I agree. Clickers, backchannels and whole host of other technologies can make a world of difference for students and instructors alike, especially in the large classes as you mentioned.

  • Noel

    This was an absolutely brilliant and mind-opening article. I can empathise with Professor Roberts. I have tried many things. One is to try and make participation fun. I tell them they can simply tell me that they would rather not. I tell them they can say anything they want. I allow them to pass on the question to anyone else. I never tell them that they are wrong. . . But it is really hard going. I also rely heavily on online interventions available in Moodle. After reading this article I am going to "seed the classroom" next time. I will approach a small sample of students as Professor Roberts did and try to get them to respond to visual cues.

    • marybart

      Thanks for the feedback, Noel. Please feel free to report back on how Professor Roberts' strategy works for you. Good luck!

      • Sally Spencer

        I just took a webinar on using Twitter in the classroom, and I'm hoping I can use it to engage the students who are reluctant to talk in class. I'm going to begin by having students Tweet their most significant learnings at the end of each class. I would love to hear suggestions on other ways to use technology for this purpose!

  • CatherineR

    I was just as shy in college, so I provide ways for shy students to show they are keeping up. One low-tech solution is to put a discussion question on the board and have everyone freewrite on it for five minutes, then invite volunteers to share their answers. I sometimes "volunteer" people myself, but they don't have to share if they don't want to. Then I collect the papers and give everyone class participation credit for their written answers. Another strategy is to have them discuss in small groups and delegate one member to summarize and report the discussion to the class. Some people who are shy in large groups will open up in a smaller one.

  • Invisible

    Because of some learning disabilities/ and my past, I am shy, and possibly invisible, but always one step ahead of the professor. I say the answers really quietly, my friends hear me and laugh when the professor asks a question, which I answer quietly, and then searches for an answer and ends up answering the question himself. It's pretty amusing. I hate it when professors call on me to offer a suggestion, my heart races, my face turns bright red, I feel suddenly stupid, and my mind wanders… I've actually been known to cry when I am forced to answer a question… I understand what they are trying to do, but there is no help for this kid. I really really really, cant say it enough, appreciate professors who offer other ways of participation such as moodle discussion forums, or writing an anonomys answer down on a sheet of paper, or anonomys white board answers. Thanks to the professors who actually care!!!

    • Anabel

      Its okay im shy too, and i know exactly how it feels when teachers call on you, and when i respond i all of the sudden i am unsure of my answer and i make no sense, but i've learned to participate in order to get points for participation so i kinda have to. But hang in there, you are not invisible. Have an amazing day! 😀 smile

  • invisiable

    Yes I am very shy as well. My college instructor will sit down with me one – on -one and talk with me. That's a technique of getting me to open. Like the college girl in this article, I too get good grades but don't have the nerve to give the anwser in class. I'd rather just listen to the lecture.

  • Leahan

    How many shy students do you think are there? In % of student population.

  • dikra souvenir

    iAM a shy student i can not speak in the classroom and i can t speak when i face my colleges and my tercher especially oral expression course i always sit in the back row of the class in order to not call me to read or to answer any question even if i have the correct answer so i, really suffering from this big problem so please i want experts or doctors to help me and give me solutions to overcome this phenomenon .thank you all

  • Richard Shirk

    I was not a student in college. However, The military forced me to speak up because I was in a position where I had to. I go to therapy classes and i see where the moderator would ask questions and they would be afraid to answer. I find in most cases that people in these types of classes have the fear of being called on because they are not prepared to speak and also because of shyness. I am shy also. I have found that excellent preparation and really having interesting things to prepare for class breeds the confidence to answer in class. You would be surprised how much the instructor will place confidence in you when you have interesting things to say and the length of your preparation becomes their focus. JMO.

  • Beauty

    You are so lucky to have such to have such an amazing and caring lecturer 🙂 Im doing an Architecture course and my design lecturer couldnt care less about his student unless your one of his favourites (basically willing to smoke weed with him or a pretty girl in class) Studying and going to classes has been exceptionally difficult as not only am i an introvert, and shy but ive also had a direct confrontation with this teacher that just increased my social anxiety and just prevented me from going to class all together. I really wish there were more teachers like this in the world…teachers that recognise that not all their students are the same but seeks to find the value in each of them regardless. Im happy to see that you got over your fear and hope that you do well in the future…

  • Qasim Ali

    I did my graduation recently.Now i want to join Civil Service via Central Superior Services(CSS) Exams.I have been an average student throughout my university education.I have been much afraid of asking questions freely in class room.Whenever a question comes into my mind during lecture i try to press this question in my brain instead of exposing it to the whole class.Whenever question arises into my brain I start to feel that my heart is racing very rapidly,my tounge is being locked,my throat gets dried,seires of thoughts of foolishness,lack of confidence,stupid question,thoughts of insult by peers and professor,and great fear of opening tounge hovers over my mind.After number of tries to ask the questions in class room and consecutive failure in asking question further have deteriorated my confidence.On the other hand,confidence and skill to speak freely and openly is much necessary in Civil Service Exams.I now feel that perhaps my schooling was not proper due to which i could not develop proper communication skills.I have good reading,writing and listening skills but due to lack of communication skills i find my self stupid and inferior than other students.Plz someone who can help me to overcome this obstacle.Now i am feeling dire need to become an efficient speaker too.plz help me!