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.