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Points for participation? It’s not so easy for introverts

“I’ve never liked being called on,” says one student. “It feels like you’re under a microscope.”


Austin Renfrey prefers to walk around with headphones on. The third-year Carleton University law student says he feels more comfortable alone than in a large group of people. His circle of friends is small and he’s not interested in meeting too many new faces. He isn’t completely reclusive – he enjoys spending time with his friends and, one day, hopes to command the courtroom.

From the above, Mr. Renfrey has concluded that, like many people, he’s an introvert. In that respect he has something in common with U.S. President Barack Obama and author J.K. Rowling, according to Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has sold more than two million copies.

As an introvert, Mr. Renfrey is one of many who feels that one of the pillars of postsecondary evaluations – class participation – discriminates against him. It’s no small matter: marks for participation may account for a quarter or more of a student’s final grade.

Although Ms. Cain says introverts account for about one third of the world’s population, there are no universally agreed-upon criteria for what makes someone introverted. Robert Coplan, a psychology professor at Carleton, says introversion is a personality trait separate from shyness or social anxiety. “It’s about the degree of life interference,” says Dr. Coplan. “If your feelings are hard for you but you’re able to cope with them, that’s part of your personality. If the feelings are making it so you can’t participate in day-to-day tasks, that falls into an anxiety disorder.”

Introverts derive energy from being alone and expend energy when spending time with other people, says Dr. Coplan. “There’s not necessarily a component of anxiety associated with it. Introverts might like and enjoy hanging out with other people, but it drains them,” he says.

Children are asked to perform verbally from a young age through show and tell. That’s an introvert’s “worst nightmare,” says Dr. Coplan. “You’ve got to stand up in front of people and everyone’s looking at you and you have to talk. Not surprisingly, quiet kids tend not to talk or say very few words.”

To make matters worse, teachers may mistake silence for slowness. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that K-12 teachers viewed quiet kids as less academically competent than their more talkative peers.

Mr. Renfrey says he knew he was an introvert from a young age. “I’ve never liked being called on,” he says. “It feels like you’re under a microscope.” Participating in groups, he says, is “something I will constantly have to work at.”

Like Mr. Renfrey, Marsha Pinto knew from childhood that she thrived in quiet places. The fourth-year University of Toronto student and aspiring speech pathologist founded Softest Voices, an organization for shy and introverted students, in 2013. “Growing up, I was always known as the shy girl who never participated and didn’t have many friends,” she says.

Ms. Pinto also struggles with class participation. “It’s not fair for many students like me to simply be forced into facing one of our biggest fears because our grade depends on it,” she says.

Emily Klein, an associate professor in the education department at Montclair University in New Jersey, says teachers often equate class participation with learning, when the connection is not always there. “If class participation is one indication of how we learn, then people who are naturally introverted suffer because of that,” she says.

Dr. Klein says she uses online exercises to evaluate participation in her university courses rather than in-class discussions. She says this makes introverted students feel more comfortable about sharing their thoughts.

“I think one of the big problems we have is that we don’t ask both our extroverted and our introverted students to push themselves beyond their comfort zone,” she says. “We ask introverted students to do it all the time, but we never ask extroverted students to do it.”

Carleton’s Dr. Coplan said he encourages his students to talk to their professors if they have trouble speaking up in class. “If participation is a strong component of the course then the onus would be on the instructor to at least offer some alternative means for someone who comes and identifies this is an issue with them,” he says.

Mr. Renfrey says the hardest thing about being an introvert is living in a world full of extroverts. “We don’t really talk about introversion, except for the introverts – and they’re keeping to themselves. It’s an unfairly represented population,” he says.

Ms. Pinto says it wasn’t until she started blogging about her experiences as an introvert for the Huffington Post and was met with support from people like her that she decided to found Softest Voices. “The hardest thing is all the misunderstanding and being labeled as the ‘unsuccessful’ personality,” she says. “I began to realize the need for awareness on this issue. If we can get people in higher positions to embrace the quiet personality, then it will create a ripple effect where quiet is seen as a strength instead of a weakness.”

Although Quiet has brought much-needed attention to the introvert community, John Zelenski, director of Carleton University’s Happiness Lab, which studies personality and well-being, said it is only the first step. “I think Susan Cain does a very good job of pointing out a lot of the ways that life is hard for introverts,” Dr. Zelenski said. “But a lot of them we haven’t studied in very systematic ways. I’m hoping people will sit down and study these things more.”

Emma Tranter is entering her fourth year in the Carleton University undergraduate journalism program this September.

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  1. Peter Wilson / April 20, 2016 at 13:06

    My experience is that extroverted students are often very poor academically, but their ready willingness to ask questions and to participate in discussions is a valuable contribution to the class. Other students are academically brilliant, but their contribution in class is extremely limited. It seems reasonable to me that both groups of students have both strengths and weaknesses, and we should be mindful of both in our assessments.

  2. Mariah / April 20, 2016 at 13:56

    As an introvert and an academically strong student, I’ve always found participation points to be the most stressful part of my grade to earn. However, I think they can still be a valuable part of evaluations. Since, as the article pointed out, the world is dominated by extroverts, it is important for introverts to learn how to get their ideas across to extroverts. It is nice when classes give options for idea transmission other than speaking in front of people, but public speaking is still a good skill to cultivate.

    An interesting point was made by Dr. Klein, that extroverts should be expected to push themselves out of their comfort zone as much as introverts. Now my question is, what would that look like?

  3. Adam Chapnick / April 20, 2016 at 14:24

    As someone who has written more than once for University Affairs in defence of introverts, I can’t help but be disappointed in this one-sided article. Consider just two points that might have been raised but were not:

    (1) if 25% of a grade is based on class participation, then 75% of that grade is not. Generally speaking, in the liberal arts at the very least, much, if not all of that 75% is based on independent research that can be undertaken largely in solitude. Such activity is hardly ideal for extroverts, making the “burden” of participation on introverts look rather light;

    (2) class participation is not merely a confirmatory activity; it is also (and much more importantly from a learning perspective) an opportunity for participants to benefit from the views of a variety of people, none of whom either gave a lecture that they might have attended, or authored readings that they might have read. Participation is therefore not just about the participant. Rather, it is about the learning experience of the group, and there is an expectation that everyone contributes not so much for their own benefit as for the benefit of others. A conscious decision not to participate in a class discussion when one is prepared and fully capable (and, note, both introverts and extroverts can be shy, so I’m not referring to issues of shyness here, which are something else altogether), is an act of selfishness. The non-participating student gets to benefit from the variety of points of view to which s/he is exposed while offering nothing in return and therefore denying his or her peers that same opportunity.

    As someone who has often left a seminar utterly drained, I fully understand the demands placed on introverts in the seminar environment. I have faced them and continue to face them both as a student and a professor. But, generally, those demands should be understood as part of a learning agreement in which neither introverts nor extroverts are privileged all the way through.

    In sum, there is certainly a case to be made about the challenges facing introverts in the university environment, but let’s make that case fairly. The article here makes the point that some institutions might lack the resources necessary to support shy people who feel uncomfortable speaking in a group setting, but it does a disservice to those of us who seek to draw attention to the challenges facing introverts who are often misunderstood because of their preference for quiet.

  4. A / June 10, 2016 at 02:10

    I do hate being called upon though I often have the correct answers. I usually suffer on participation, admittedly. I will give this advice to teachers, for what it’s worth. Know that A. we gravitate towards the back and corners, away from folks if possible but at least in the back, away from the board. That’s usually a decent sign that you’re dealing with an introvert. Introverts can be shy too, yes. I am shy which is actually more detrimental than being introverted. Truth be told, we learn quite easily in an extroverted environment and most of us CAN speak up though we often choose not to.
    One way that professors and people in general get through to me is that they start by making small talk with me so that I can get to know them. I may not answer them much but once I decide if I can trust them and that I like them – which is just about everyone I meet – I start to speak them more, one-on-one. If participation is vital to the class you you teach, once you reach this point, start by asking them if they’d like to answer a question, do a problem on the board, etc. If they say ‘no’, don’t push them openly in front of the class but just give us your vote of confidence with lots of positive encouragement after class. “Hey, next time I want to see you participate, ok? I know you can do it!” is all you need. For the most part this will be all you need to do because A. you’ll have given us time to adapt to this new expectation and B. you’ll have built up our self-confidence. If we still refuse and you are getting on well with us, just say (with a smile), “You don’t want to come up? Well come on up anyway!” with some positive encouragement behind it. 😉 Basically just keep it positive. Hope that helps.