Reflections on Being an Introvert in the Classroom


by Jeanne Briggs, '96


On the first day of a new class, I always check the syllabus to find out how much of my grade depends on oral participation. Receiving a grade for class participation has always been a great source of anxiety for me, since I am rarely the person in the class who speaks the most, and sometimes I am the person who speaks the least. I watch other students who speak often and I am frustrated by the knowledge that they are being rewarded for the quantity of their participation while I am being punished.

Recently I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which revealed that I have a preference for an introverted learning style. The Myers-Briggs has a specific definition of introversion that is not necessarily the same as the common conception of it. According to the Myers-Briggs typology, introverted students tend to focus on internal thoughts, feelings, or impressions. They draw their energy from their inner experience, as opposed to extroverts who draw theirs from the outer world. (For a more thorough description, see Introduction to Type, found in the LTC.)

As I read the description, I found that I could relate to much of it. Introverted learners prefer to study alone with little noise or interruption. This explains why I can never get any work done in Sayles. Introverted learners also tend to participate less in class, since they prefer to process ideas by thinking to themselves rather than by speaking to others. Introverts tend to speak in class only when they have processed an idea, rehearsed it, and prepared themselves to offer their idea to the group. This suggests why my tendency is to listen to what others say in class, internally connect it to what I think about an idea, and only offer my own thoughts when I believe that I have thought them through entirely.

The difficulty with this style of learning is that it may not fit well with either traditional concepts of class discussion or traditional criteria for grading on oral participation.

The spontaneous nature of class discussion can be difficult for an introverted learner who needs time to process ideas before speaking them aloud. During a typical class discussion, I feel as though the conversation is going by at such a rapid pace that I am unable to formulate an idea quickly enough to interject it into the conversation. As I am formulating my idea and thinking it through, the topic of the discussion has changed. When I write down in papers what I would have said in class, my professors tell me that they wish I would say more in class, or that I should have said in class what I wrote in my paper.

If I offer my idea in class, however, I feel as though it is unconnected and makes no sense in the conversation. For this reason I often keep my ideas to myself. I sometimes end up speaking at the end of class, when I have fully processed all of the ideas that have been presented and therefore feel able to contribute my opinion, but by then it is usually too late.

The fact that class participation is often graded adds to my frustration. Sometimes professors try to encourage me to speak in class, but this usually increases my discomfort because I feel pressured to say something. Worse, if I make a comment that I haven't fully processed I feel as though I have said something unproductive. On the other hand, if I do not participate in the discussion, I expect that the professor will think I am not paying attention or have nothing to say. Inevitably, I leave the classroom wishing I had had a chance to say what was spinning inside my head, and I often finish a term thinking that I would have gotten an even higher grade if only I had spoken a little more frequently.

There are advantages to the introverted learning style, however. Listening to what other people are saying and internally processing their comments means that I am often able to summarize a discussion or articulate an aspect of it that has been left out. In the classroom setting, I am generally observing the dynamics of the discussion, and this can lead to interesting insights about the mechanics of the interaction. Since I generally speak in class only when I feel I have something articulate to say, my comments are often helpful in moving the discussion to a new place. One of the best compliments a professor ever gave me was when he said that although I didn't speak often in class, when I did speak I always said something meaningful. Unfortunately, these advantages often seem undervalued in the classroom.

My preference for an introverted learning style does not mean that I never speak in class or that I don't like to speak in class. I actually enjoy participating in a lively, thought-provoking discussion, as long as it is structured in a way that allows me to contribute.

The structuring of discussion so that both introverted and extroverted learners can contribute is a responsibility incumbent on both the professor and the student. Helpful strategies that professors can use for encouraging introverted learners to participate include presenting discussion questions ahead of time so that the introverted learner has an opportunity to prepare a response, incorporating student-led discussion in which students are asked to prepare questions and plan the structure of the discussion, and allowing time in the discussion for students to write down their thoughts or simply to process what has been said.

It is unlikely that merely grading for oral participation in class will force introverted learners to participate in discussion more often; instead, it is likely to result in feelings of frustration and failure when the introverted student believes that she/he is getting a lower grade for not participating enough. It is helpful for the professor to make clear at the outset that quality as well as quantity of participation will be graded and to outline the things that she/he looks for as indicators of quality.

Rather than try to find ways to encourage more participation from the students who are quiet, it is important for a professor to be careful that the contributions of introverts and extroverts are validated in similar ways so that introverts will feel drawn into the discussion and continue to contribute.

Similarly, extroverted learners need to respect the introverted learning style. This means recognizing that sometimes silence in a discussion is acceptable and even necessary. In the same way that introverted learners make the effort to participate in a discussion, extroverted learners must make the effort to refrain at times from participating just to fill the silence. Introverted learners need space in which to enter the conversation, and providing this space will encourage them to continue to make the effort to participate.

Beyond simply allowing space in the conversation, extroverted and introverted learners alike can develop an understanding of their learning styles as complementary rather than competing. While introverted learners listen to the discussion, seeking the underlying themes and articulating the 'skeleton' of the discussion, extroverted learners interrogate and explore issues and provide the 'flesh'. The comments provided by extroverts spur introverts toward insights, while the contributions of introverts help extroverts to summarize their ideas and know that their comments are constructive. Both introverts and extroverts must be patient with each other, since they need each other's learning styles to provide the diversity of a rich discussion.

It is vital for introverts not only to recognize their learning style preference (with its strengths and limitations) but to make their needs clear to the professor. Looking back on my classes, I recognize that there were many classes which would have been greatly improved for me had I simply mentioned to the professor that some of the techniques I've described would be helpful for me and for other students who share my learning style. Knowing one's learning style preferences and sharing that knowledge with others is an important but often overlooked aspect of the educational process.