February 9, 2016

How to Quietly Engage Introverts in the Classroom

by Nicole Hollinger, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical System

I recently graduated from professional school and stepped out of the classroom as a student - hopefully for good. As a learner, I always quietly engaged in classroom activities, rarely raising my hand, terrified of being called on and speaking through a racing heart whenever forced to do so. I participated in classroom discussions by listening, processing, answering, debating – but only in my own head. When I reached high school, I began to overcome my fear of speaking and began to verbalize the thoughts in my head out loud – but only when I was 1000% sure of the answer. When I ventured off to college, I regressed into my old habits. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I raised my hand in college, let alone the number of times I actually spoke out loud, in those daunting lecture halls. Moreover, I only raised my hand because participation points required me to do so. I envied the students who had the courage to speak up and concluded that my classroom personality was inadequate. Not because I wasn’t engaged in the classroom activities; but because I was unable to present my thoughts orally to the class. On the other hand, I tended to thrive in small group discussions where there weren’t 100 pairs of eyes focused on me all at once. I always attributed my classroom behavior to my self-proclaimed introverted personality. I always wished that I could participate in more overt ways and engage in classroom discussions, until now.

Lone Bird

Not surprisingly, surveys show that the majority of educators believe that ideal learners are extroverts.1 Now that I am experiencing classrooms for the first time as the instructor, I am invested in assuring all personalities types benefit from the experience. There is no “right” way to participate in classroom activities.  Rather, participation can occur in ways that allow all learners to perform to their best and, perhaps more importantly, in a way that is most comfortable for the learner. I believe that instructors have the responsibility to accommodate all types of learners by incorporating a variety of tactics that allow expression and participation, and here I will provide some tips for feasible application of this concept.
The purpose of this essay is not to deter instructors from encouraging oral discussions nor is it to cater to introverts so that they are not challenged in the classroom; it is simply to allow multiple forms of expression so as to accommodate the range of personalities in every classroom. Before we dive into ways to accomplish this goal, we must understand a few things. First, what are the fundamental differences between introverts and extroverts? Of course there are varying degrees of introversion and extroversion, but for simplicity sake the basic difference lies in the place from which they attain their energy. For the introvert, energy comes from reflection and thought. For the extrovert, it stems from social interaction. Second, what does it mean to engage a student? For extroverts, engaging means verbalizing their thoughts through speech, whereas for introverts it tends to be non-oral forms of expression. Introverts appreciate self-reflection and independent time to work. Personally, I savored the “work on your own time” activities because I had more time to process the information or questions posed.  Which brings me to some quick tips to engage the quiet learners in the room.

To begin, patience is critical when hoping to engage an introvert. Give them time to develop their thoughts internally prior to asking them to express it, whether it be an oral discussion or a written assignment. For oral discussions, this can be done simply by waiting at least 10 to 15 seconds before calling on someone in the class.2 The extrovert hand will go up immediately, the introvert needs time to process what was asked, and additional time to work up the courage to raise their hand.

Second, Emily Klein and Meg Riordan share an idea of rethinking the participation grade in their essay Participation Penalizes the Quiet Learners.3 They believe that the instructor should promote evidence of learning as a means of participation. Participation points should not be awarded to any learner who chooses to express themselves, but rather only to those who bring meaningful ideas or questions to the discussion. Reward quality, not quantity.

Finally, utilize strategies that allow the learner preparation time before sharing. Think-pair-share is an excellent technique that creates a safer environment for the introvert. This gives them the time to first think through the topic then rehearse what they want to say before speaking up in front of the whole class.2 Another option is to use an online discussion board or social media. Posting reflections challenges the introverted learner to share ideas in a virtual group setting, but they have more time to formulate their thoughts and work through their fear prior to participating. Any time you allow time for reflection, preparation, and rehearsal, you exponentially increase the likelihood of engaging the introvert, as these are the learning strategies they value most.

As I’ve learned from my experiences, teaching is complex, challenging, and ever evolving. Optimally engaging every learner in the classroom is a significant undertaking, but I would argue not unattainable. However, if we continue to employ unimaginative, “old-school” teaching methods that consider the extrovert the ideal student, we are doing a disservice to introverted learners. Activities in the classroom should challenge all types of learners. Promoting deep thought or self-reflection engages the introvert while at the same time challenging the extroverts. The classroom should be designed to encourage all learners, not expect the learner to conform to a rigid structure.

  1. Meisgeier C, et al. Implication and Applications of Psychological Type to Educational Reform and Renewal. Proceedings of the First Biennial International Conference on Education of the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, Gainesville, Florida. 1994.
  2. Cain S, Klein E. Engaging the Quiet Kids. Independent School Magazine [Internet]. Fall 2015.
  3. Klein EJ, Riordan M. Participation Penalizes the Quiet Learners: Making the Case for Standards Based Grading. Quiet Revolution [Internet].
  4. Cain S. The power of introverts [video]. Long Beach (CA): TED Talk; 2012.

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