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Career Advice

Introverts and extroverts have different learning preferences

Professors need to adapt their teaching to address each group’s strengths.

A visual note created by Giulia Forsythe, Special Projects Coordinator for the Brock Centre for Pedagogical Innovation
A visual note created by Giulia Forsythe, Special Projects Coordinator for the Brock Centre for Pedagogical Innovation.

In a recent session at Brock University’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, I explored the implications of temperament on teaching and learning. Inspired by Susan Cain’s bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I have been thinking about how introverts and extroverts differ in their preferences when it comes to learning and the challenges this might pose to faculty.

Though many of the participants were familiar with the notions of introversion and extroversion, we considered temperament from the perspective of preferred levels of stimulation and differing attitudes towards social contact and solitude. I challenged some common misconceptions by distinguishing between introversion and shyness. While some individuals may be both introverted and shy, the two qualities are not synonymous. An individual on the introversion end of the spectrum might be quite socially skilled but prefers solitary time and needs time alone after extended social interaction.

The heart of the discussion focused on how temperament influences the preferences of students when it comes to learning. Students who are more introverted are generally comfortable in lecture halls, learning primarily through listening and reading and may need time to reflect and write before participating in verbal exchanges. On the other hand, students who are more extroverted tend to think out loud, and participating in group discussions may come easily. Given the wealth of evidence supporting active learning, and the valuable trend towards collaboration, this creates a dilemma for faculty. Are introverted students at a disadvantage when “participation” is generally evaluated through observation of who speaks in large groups?

I encouraged the group to reflect on their assumptions with respect to temperament and how these attitudes might play themselves out in classrooms. Beginning with self-reflection and considering how our biases might result in rewarding the natural tendencies of extroverts over introverts, I then proposed two approaches to addressing these essential differences.

The first strategy I presented is “congruent choice.” This simply means that, when possible, we provide students with choice to engage in learning in ways that are congruent with their temperament. For an introverted student this might include working alone rather than in groups, being given time to think or write before being asked to speak and being assessed through written work rather than through oral presentations. The opposite choices might be preferred by students on the extroversion end of the spectrum.

A second concept that I introduced is “an equitable approach to risk taking.” While the policy of congruent choice allows students to work within their comfort zones, we acknowledged that much of learning requires us to stretch beyond what feels easy. I speculated, however, that perhaps we ask introverts to stretch more than extroverts. We often demand that our more introverted students “speak up,” “contribute,” “be a team player” and “show some leadership.” Fewer of us, perhaps, ask our more extroverted students to “think first,” “reflect,” “listen” and “acknowledge and invite the contributions of others.” In an equitable classroom, students identify their strengths as well as their areas for growth, and risk-taking is encouraged regardless of where students fall on the spectrum.

A few weeks after this seminar, I asked for feedback from the participants. One commented, “I thought about marking bias in relation to participation, and I am thinking about other ways of marking participation.” One faculty member recognized some inherent bias in her approach. “I realized that the way I have structured my course, it would push the introverts but I haven’t structured it to push the extroverts in the same way. It has made me really consider how I may foster learning in a comfortable yet challenging way to both introverts and extroverts.”

Finally, one participant focused on the implications beyond the classroom to the workforce: “I had not encountered the phrase, ‘culture of extroversion’ before, but it definitely made an impression. In my role in career education, this brought to light for me how much of the recruitment process inherently favours extroverts, even though extroversion is not necessarily a key ingredient for success in the actual jobs.”

Whether in the classroom or on the job, introverts and extroverts have different strengths. Rather than trying to turn introverts into extroverts, or vice versa, both will perform to their peak potential if those strengths are fostered and risk-taking is rewarded.

Nicki Monahan works in faculty development at George Brown College in Toronto. 

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