How Class Participation Grades Unfairly Punish Introverts (And What Teachers Should Do Instead)

an introvert is punished by class participation grades

Introverts have a lot of thoughts to contribute and may be capable of deeper insights than the extroverts who dominate the discussion.

“It’s so nice to finally hear your voice,” my English professor says as I walk into her office. She’s trying to be encouraging, but inside, I cringe, because her statement confirms something terrible that I already know about myself — I’m too quiet.

I’ve always been a private and reserved person. As a child, I loved spending whole days alone, preferring reading and daydreaming over my peers’ noisy games. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was an introvert, through and through.

It wasn’t until college that my reserved nature became a serious “problem.” Suddenly, I found myself in a competitive environment, where the other students were much more outspoken and aggressive than me. Unlike me, they seemed determined at all costs to drown out each other and make their voices heard. Classroom discussions moved quickly, and it felt impossible for me to get a word in. In true introvert fashion, by the time I had formulated my thoughts, the class was already on to the next topic.

I floundered. I was a good student, and I didn’t want my grades to suffer due to my lack of participation, so I put tremendous pressure on myself to speak up. I did manage to get a few words in on occasion. It wasn’t great, but I was getting by.

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Then one day, this strategy backfired. I had forced myself to speak up during a debate, but I hadn’t really planned what I was going to say. My professor, a Yale graduate who relished fast-moving discussions of literary theory, grew impatient.

“What’s your point?” he demanded irritably, scolding me in front of the class. I quickly wrapped up my statement, burning with embarrassment and fighting back tears.

After this incident, I stopped speaking in that class altogether, and my participation in other classes dropped as well. Throughout college and graduate school, my lack of participation was noted by my professors, who rarely seemed to understand that public speaking was extremely difficult for me.

Yes, my grades did take a hit. I could write beautiful essays and score well on tests; yet somehow, that didn’t outweigh the fact that I struggled to get my words out in the heat of the moment in front of others.

One Teacher Made a Difference

Thankfully, there was one professor who understood the obstacle I was facing, and the remarkable example she set showed me that there was no reason for introverted students to struggle so much in the classroom.

Professor Simon was a Creative Writing instructor who taught short fiction and novel writing classes. As with other college courses, the students were given reading assignments, and much of the class revolved around discussing these readings. Like with my other classes, I found it challenging to formulate my thoughts and express my ideas, but Professor Simon recognized the difficulty I was having and developed a solution.

One day after class, Professor Simon spoke with me after the other students had left the room. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my participation grade. She invited me to email her after class with my thoughts and impressions about the readings, and to include anything I had wanted to say during the discussion but was unable to. I greatly appreciated this alternative and returned to my dorm room and composed an email to her that very night.

It was amazing to me how quickly and easily the thoughts flowed onto the screen, and I realized that I had a lot of insights and original ideas when I was alone, free from the pressure of the classroom environment. I developed the habit of composing a thoughtful email after each class, which Professor Simon would carefully read and respond to with some ideas of her own. The exchange of ideas and dialogue was rewarding, and it made me realize that I had a lot of thoughts to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.

Professor Simon was unique among my professors, because she was the only one who didn’t regard my lack of participation as a flaw or a sign that I was uninterested or had nothing to say. She had the sensitivity to recognize that I was a diligent student with plenty of ideas and insights who simply had difficulty speaking in front of a classroom full of competitive, outspoken students.

And what’s more, she developed a solution that allowed me to express my thoughts privately in writing, in a manner that was more comfortable for me. I received full credit for class participation and ended up with one of the highest grades in the class, all thanks to one teacher’s sensitivity and willingness to offer a solution.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

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How to Make Class Participation More Comfortable for Introverts

Not all introverts will struggle in the same way that I did, but many of us “quiet ones” do. These days, speaking in class is often a significant portion of a student’s grade. In that way, participation grades unfairly “punish” introverts.

I was fortunate to have a teacher who offered an alternative, and I strongly encourage other teachers to do the same thing. Here’s what I propose, based on my experiences:

1. Understand the definition of introversion.

Being an introvert means having a preference for minimally stimulating environments, and quickly getting worn out by too much stimulation — including social stimulation. That’s it. Being an introvert doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy, anxious, or lacking in confidence. Yes, introverts can be those things, too, just like extroverts can be as well. But at its core, being quiet isn’t a bad thing. Neither is being an introvert. Understanding the real definition of introversion goes a long way toward not viewing introverted students as “bad” or in need of fixing.

2. Stay attuned to the quieter students.

It’s easy to overlook quiet students or assume that they’re bored or have nothing to say. But there are other signs of engagement that go beyond class participation. Do the quiet students listen attentively to the lessons, instructions, or lectures? Do they look like they are thinking hard and have something to say? Do they hand in assignments on time, and is their written work thoughtful and insightful? These are just a few indications that your quiet student may be an introvert who is struggling with class participation.

3. Speak with introverted students privately and propose an alternative.

Once you have identified an introverted student, speak with him or her privately outside of class. Let them know that you have observed their difficulty speaking in class and suggest an alternative. Allowing the student to express their thoughts in writing can be a highly effective solution; base their participation grade on their writing rather than their in-class comments.

4. Challenge the notion that introversion is a flaw that students need to change or overcome.

Introverts have a lot of thoughts to contribute and may be capable of deeper insights than the extroverts who dominate the discussion. Introverted students may feel silenced and marginalized to begin with, due to our society’s obsession with the extrovert ideal, as Susan Cain explains in Quiet. As their teacher, you’re the only one who can give them the opportunity to express themselves in the classroom in a way that works for them — as Professor Simon did for me. You’re someone who can make a difference for introverted students.

I will always remain grateful to my sensitive and innovative writing professor, who recognized my introversion, accepted it, and found another way for me to share my voice.

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