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Career Advice

Recognizing the differences between shy and introverted students

When students don’t participate, neither they nor their peers can learn as much.


Workshops on how to encourage class participation are a staple of teaching and learning centres across the country. However, little of that advice is geared to the needs on an oft-neglected subset of introverted university students: the ones who aren’t shy.

Even though Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was a bestseller, and her TED Talk has been viewed more than 10 million times, I’m not sure that our postsecondary teaching and learning community has fully appreciated its implications.

If we want to encourage all of our students to participate in class, we have to accept that shy students are not necessarily introverted. And introverts are not necessarily shy.

Shyness is a form of social anxiety. Shy students often want to participate in class discussions, but they worry about how they will come across, or what others will think of what they have to say. Bringing these students out of their shells typically requires empathy, trust-building, and – most importantly – a focus on self-efficacy. Instructors have to identify and develop relationships with their shyer students, help them realize that they have valuable insights to contribute, and encourage them to speak out.

The advice on how to manage shyness is ubiquitous, research-based and reliable. Most of it will emphasize some, if not all, of the following themes:

  • Be open and inviting.
  • Treat each student as an individual.
  • Be clear about why you ask for participation in the classroom.
  • Be transparent about what you mean by participation.
  • Be flexible by offering a diversity of methods and means for contributing.
  • Start the academic acclimatization process as early as possible.
  • Provide clear and honest feedback on individual contributions to classroom learning throughout the term, not just at the end.

Unfortunately, not all of these strategies will resonate with every introvert. The problem is in the premise: that there is a psychological barrier preventing participation, and that if the barrier is removed, the behaviour will change.

Introverts find group conversations physically – rather than primarily psychologically – exhausting. Self-aware introverts might therefore make a conscious choice not to participate in class discussions even though they have lots to say. When they do speak, it tends to be at the end when they have had ample time to reflect.

The issue, then, is not always self-efficacy; these introverts are not worried about the adequacy of their views. They aren’t necessarily concerned about how their peers, or instructor, might respond to their interventions. Rather, their behaviour is about self-preservation in a physiological sense.

Particularly if they have multiple classes or other social engagements in a single day, they might choose to conserve their energy by staying quiet. In doing so, they knowingly accept the academic consequences (like a lower participation grade) as the cost of self-preservation.

There is significantly less research, and advice, on how to encourage participation from individuals with this mindset. Indeed, in my experience, a focus on self-efficacy can be self-defeating: by convincing introverts that they have meaningful ideas to contribute, we also validate their general sense of judgment. If that judgment tells them to stay quiet, then they become even more comfortable in their silence.
In recent seminars, I have begun experimenting with two strategies. The first is intellectual. I explain that neither I, nor any individual course member, nor the assigned readings, can provide as great a diversity of thought as a group of individuals reacting in real-time. Put simply, every voice counts.

I also make an ethical appeal. Regardless of whether introverts participate, they benefit from exposure to the ideas of their more outspoken colleagues. If you have the opportunity to learn from others, it seems only fair that you offer something in return. And if everyone waited until the end of class to speak, we could not sustain a discussion.

Whether my approach represents best practice is unclear, and my success rate is uneven. What is clear is that shyness and introversion are different phenomena. Certainly, many introverts are also shy, but not all of them are. It is therefore worth thinking about how we might adjust our approaches to encouraging class participation accordingly.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

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  1. Richard Deschambault / September 30, 2017 at 11:34

    An interesting article, providing a reliable summary to guide how to deal with introverts. One of the greatest challenge of any teaching position is to motivate individuals to contribute into the exchange of ideas. To be successful into creating a dynamic and yet safe environment, one needs to delve further into the diversity of personality styles than the intro/extroversion paradigm.

    I must say that in any group, workshop or team I observed, taught or facilitated, the group dynamic had a lot more to do with the individuals’ behavioral styles than just the major personalities traits. Identifying who is outgoing and who is more reserved, and then adjusting the discourse was always a very good beginning. Yet without defining the tendencies of each to be action oriented or reflective ,or what consists as a motivator or a stressor for each participants, the success rate of these advice will be unreliable. Knowing how many dominant style individuals versus, say, the conscientious ones will identify the broad dynamics, but also the pitfalls one may face in a group. Exercises aiming at identifying the style of each participants help in defining which ”rule” will be more profitable to the team, and ultimately for introverts and extroverts.

    The second aspect I found that directly affects outcomes is to create a vulnerability – based dialogue. Can’t have a good debate of ideas without the willingness to be vulnerable! Exercises aiming at creating this vulnerability – based dialogue have helped in encouraging participants to take their places in the group, and thus develop exchanges that were respectful, diverse and positive.

  2. Nigel Benwell / October 9, 2017 at 13:36

    As is often the case, I find myself agreeing with Adam’s excellent analysis but do wonder whether introversion is always necessarily physiological or perhaps we are too quick to combine physiological introversion with a need for reflection before contribution. If there is an individual need for greater reflection then the issue becomes part of the activity planning. Easier perhaps in the more learned atmosphere of the graduate programme than High School where the academic day may well be full with programmed activity. Models based on the Flipped Classroom which encourage research followed by reflection, followed by contribution help but simple programming ideas, such as lecture followed by natural breaks such as lunch also build space for reflection. Physiological conditions may also be supported by such an approach but require institutions to take a far more integrated and holistic approach to programming and activity planning.

  3. Charna Gord / October 12, 2017 at 15:42

    Thanks for writing the article Adam. It provided much needed insight into something I have been grappling with; how to get the quiet students to speak out more in class. I thought about your analysis and how to adapt it for my graduate level classroom of 20 students. In a nutshell what I did was: I briefly introduced the subject at the beginning of this week’s class. I asked how many of the students were familiar with Susan Cain’s book or Ted Talk. Only a few raised their hands. I strongly encouraged them all to watch the Ted Talk. I asked who could explain what being shy was, and what being introverted was, and then we talked about the differences. I asked them to think about what would make it easier for a shy person and an introverted person to participate more in class. And I mentioned why it was in everyone’s interest to make the classroom a safe space where everyone felt they could voice an opinion, and how that level of participation might make the discussion richer. I asked them for suggestions as to how we could make our classroom more accessible for everyone. They came up with several ideas. One student described a strategy one of her undergrad professors used and I thought it might be the technique to try then and there. The class agreed that those students who could easily speak up in class, count to 10 before replying to questions, in order to give the quieter students a chance to speak. And although as you suggest I can’t be certain, it seemed that following that decision, there were more voices heard during the discussion. So thanks again for putting your thoughts to paper and sharing.

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