Stop Forcing Introverts to Speak in Class. There Are Better Ways.

IntrovertDear.com introvert students participation

“It’s so nice to finally hear your voice,” my English professor said when I walked into her office. She was being encouraging, but inside I cringed, because her statement affirmed what I already knew — that I was too quiet and struggled to speak my mind in front of the class.

I had always been reserved, preferring to read and daydream than participate in my classmates’ noisy games, but when I was in college, my reluctance to speak in the classroom became increasingly obvious to my professors. I found myself in a competitive environment, where the other students seemed extremely outspoken, aggressive, and determined to make their voices heard. The discussions moved quickly, and it was often difficult for me to get a word in, because by the time I formulated my thoughts, the students and professor were already on to the next topic.

Initially I struggled to participate, putting tremendous pressure on myself to speak, but then one day, this strategy backfired. I had forced myself to speak but hadn’t really planned what I was going to say, and my professor, a Yale graduate who relished fast-moving discussions of literary theory, grew impatient.

“What’s your point?” he demanded irritably, and 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 speaking in front of the class was extremely difficult for me.

One Teacher Made a Difference

But there was one professor who understood, and the remarkable example she set showed me that there was no reason for an introverted student 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 gone. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my class 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 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 to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.

Professor Simon was unique among my professors, since 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.

How Teachers Can Make Participation More Comfortable for Introverts

Class participation is often a significant portion of a student’s grade, and I have felt pressured to force myself to speak in order to meet the participation requirements, as do many introverts. But I was fortunate to have a teacher who offered an alternative, and I strongly encourage other teachers to do the same. How can a teacher recognize an introverted student and support him or her? Here’s what I propose, based on my own experiences:

Stay attuned to the quieter students: It is easy to overlook quiet students or assume that they are bored or have nothing to say. But there are other signs of engagement that go beyond class participation. Do the quiet students listen attentively in class? 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 is introverted and struggling with class participation.

Speak with your introverted student 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 via email can be a highly effective solution; base their participation grade on these emails rather than class discussion.

Challenge the notion that introversion is a flaw that students need to change or overcome: Remember that introverts have a lot to contribute and may be capable of deeper insight than many of the extroverts who dominate class discussion. Many of the introverted students feel silenced to begin with, and as their teacher, it is up to you to give them the opportunity to express their opinions, as Professor Simon did for me.

I 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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Read this: Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More

Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman  retina_favicon1

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  • Damn, Girl

    You can’t judge a fish by it’s ability to climb trees and all

  • Amanda

    I once had a professor give the option of doing a paper or an oral presentation. I was so thankful. At the time I had recently done a presentation in another class and it went badly. I had worked hard researching and practicing but in the end it was me nervously eyes down reading from my paper, my voice actually quivered. So when this other professor gave us a choice between paper and oral presentation it was a weight of my shoulders

    • Tara Malone

      It’s so good to hear that you had a professor who gave students a choice between a paper and an oral presentation. Amazing how giving students options can make such a difference.

  • Edgar

    In college a professor decided it was 60% written exam and 30% participation (only speaking during class counted) and 10% homeworks. I failed that subject. Back then I didn’t know I was an introvert, otherwise I would have complained and told the Dean.

    • Tara Malone

      I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. I certainly agree that students should speak to their professor or Dean in this situation.

  • As a teacher, I have noticed that quiet students inability to contribute to class results as much from their introversion as to the presence of a very dominating personality who hogs the whole focus of the lesson. As an introvert INFJ, while I am quite social, I notice that much talk around introverts and communicating appears to cross over into social anxiety, which is not the same thing at all. A well managed class in which the facilitator can moderate the influence of one loud dominating student should be a place where introverts can speak.

    Introverts will gain confidence in speaking publicly over time. Sometimes you do have to force yourself, even if it makes the room grow fuzzy and you fell like you ran a mile, it will be exhilarating once you sit down again and somewhat addictive, until you finally grow more comfortable with it. I still hate contributing in unfamiliar situations, even after 14 years of teaching.

    Introverts can be great public speakers, look at INFJ Martin Luther King, but like any skill it takes practice and moving out of your comfort zone.

    • Tara Malone

      Your point is well taken, if a student struggles to participate due to social anxiety that is another issue entirely and other strategies might be needed. With practice, public speaking can certainly become easier for those with social anxiety. At the same time, there are introverted students who are not necessarily anxious but need more time to formulate their thoughts (myself included) and who often get lost when a discussion moves too quickly. This was a major problem for me, so the alternative my professor provided made a big difference for me.

      • I take your point completely Tara, I found that my class participation was much greater when it involved message boards with my on-line degree study than my face to face study. I only mentioned the social anxiety as I have noticed a trend for some introverted people to define their type using traits that are more symptoms of social anxiety rather than introverted traits. I agree that if you are having trouble formulating your thoughts quickly enough or having trouble breaking into the discussion, or are being interrupted mid sentence by a more extroverted student, then those are introverted problems and there are solution for them. Often I found practicing what you want to say in your head so that to you it may sound rehearsed to you but to listeners sounds completely normal, helps.
        Though I did want to clarify that they are highly specific problems that can be overcome with spectacular results, which makes them very different to social anxiety which if mistaken for introversion could hinder sufferers in receiving the help that they need.
        Great article Tara, one that has clearly provoked much thought.

        • Tara Malone

          Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights, Natalie. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the article!

  • njguy54

    As an introvert, I rarely had trouble speaking up in class, and neither did my equally introverted classmates. Perhaps we saw classrooms as safe spaces, or maybe teachers called on us more because they thought we were disengaged, or to “bring us out of our shells.” Conversely, it was the louder “class clown” types who struggled when speaking in class; in many cases they weren’t paying attention and weren’t prepared.

    Today I do lots of business training and facilitation, and have found that group activities like writing ideas on sticky notes and voting on them by using dot stickers (a technique called “dot voting”) is preferable to having people in large groups just start talking. As someone else here noted, not only do introverts feel uncomfortable speaking up sometimes, but the discussion can get hijacked by a few people, or everyone defers to the most senior person present (HIPPO syndrome, for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). If ideas are written instead of spoken, everyone present can have a voice.

    • Tara Malone

      It’s good to hear that you had more positive experiences as an introvert in the classroom. I think if an introverted student feels safe in the class it would certainly be easier for him or her to participate. Thanks for sharing the strategies that you use when training business professionals to ensure everyone has a voice.

  • Proclusian

    Thank you. As someone who teaches college, this is incredibly helpful. I do usually say that 10% is participation for my classes, but I stipulate that short written essays also count for that 10%.

    What I wonder about sometimes is how I could better distinguish between the true introverts and those who could easily speak but are not doing so. This can happen for many reasons, but I think that, in a class, if too many people remain silent, the class seems dead, and it is hard for me, as a teacher, to single-handedly carry the class through these long periods of silence. Small-group work can help, but I still wonder: how can I know if someone finds speaking painful and distinguish that person from someone who is very outspoken outside of class but just doesn’t speak inside class.

    • Tara Malone

      I’m so glad to hear that you found the article helpful. It’s also good to hear that you base your students’ participation grade on written assignments as well. It can certainly be difficult sometimes to tell if students are not participating due to true introversion or anxiety or simply due to lack of engagement. My impression is that if a quiet student is actively listening and puts a lot of effort into their assignments that likely indicates introversion. This was true for me and for other introverts I know.

    • Robert Miles

      Individuals with social anxiety or who are shy (fear of social judgement) will be more inclined not to speak in large groups. Introverts just need more time to think about what they are going to say or some outside space (like how the email is described by the author) to reflect in. Offering a message board to add to class discussions after class could be a way to help introverts in that respect.

  • Lesliepbg

    I very much related to this article and the scenario. However I think there’s introversion and social anxiety. If you truly WANT to participate using your voice but are hindered by anxiety, there are ways around it. I found by coincidence that a beta blocker I was prescribed actually turned me into a more extroverted person–I now work in a customer service setting and am happy to engage people. I am more outgoing with colleagues and not worried about voicing my opinions to others. I wish I had had this drug years ago! Just one thought–some would still say–don’t challenge introversion, but I think many of us feel this not by choice.

    • Tara Malone

      Many thanks for sharing your experiences. Social anxiety is so prevalent and it is important for people who struggle to participate due to anxiety to know that there are effective treatments available.

  • Maria Terces

    As the mother of an introvert, sadly it took me (an extrovert) a while to accept nothing is wrong with my daughter. I had to learn, it wasn’t her, it was me. This is a great article that i will share. Thank you!

    • Tara Malone

      I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the article, and many thanks for sharing it!

  • Tara Malone

    Thank you for writing in. I have to agree that I also found it much easier to speak in classes where I felt confident with the material and where the teacher made the classroom feel like a safe environment.

  • ALenny Schafer

    This adaptive technique will make it easier for her to participate in class, but is only a crutch which will not equipt her with language skills needed for most of the real world. Maybe for her goals a social skills situation is not involved. But I doubt this is a good general answer for introvert students who plan to apply their studies in social situations.

    • As a student, I was very quiet and introverted. I was forced over and over again to give speeches and presentations, and raise my hand for a participation grade. Did any of it make me feel more comfortable speaking in class? Did it equip me with “language skills needed for the real world”? Nope.

      As an adult, I still struggle with speaking in front of a group. However, as an author/editor, I’ve organized my life around writing, not speaking. When I do have to speak to groups — radio, interviews, presentations, etc. — I do certain things to help me feel more comfortable.

      I don’t believe that allowing a student to participate via email rather than class discussion is a crutch. I wish my teachers would have done that for me — I would likely have gotten more out of my classes than I did. Also, it probably would have given me the confidence to actually speak more in class. As a former teacher myself, I know it’s not always practical time-wise for teachers to make exceptions for students, but I believe teachers have an obligation to try. Meet students where they’re at, and help them grow, one step at a time.

  • TheDoc

    I think those of us who teach should provide low-stakes opportunities for students to take verbal and written risks in class. In addition, strategic use of small groups and even pairs can bring out introverted students, who can be wonderful mentors and coaches to other students. This is especially important in schools and colleges whose guidelines specifiy that increaing speaking skills is one of the course goals.

    • Tara Malone

      Thanks for your input. I could not agree more!

  • Deborah M. March

    Thank you so much for this reflection. I shared your words here on our school’s academic blog (with some of my own thoughts) and plan to share your piece with our faculty in the fall. http://truthinmedia.edublogs.org/2017/07/24/our-students-want-to-be-seen-what-is-getting-in-the-way/ Your article is a great reminder that teachers have choices about how we craft learning experiences and assessments – and that those choices can often create unequal opportunities for our students to demonstrate mastery.

    • Tara Malone

      Many thanks for your kind words, and for sharing the article with other faculty members!

  • Remi

    Thank you for sharing your experience!!

    As an adjunct and current PhD candidate, I’ve wished some people WOULDN’T speak. But I always have a brief section during my first class where I tell my students that I understand that some of them may not feel comfortable speaking in class. I say that that’s fine, but I expect them to come tell me either via email or after class, so that we can work together to devise an appropriate way to demonstrate their commitment and engagement with the material.

    For assignments, there are always a variety of options, including handing in a composed PowerPoint presentation with notes for me, while the student won’t be asked to present it in class. However, when I had one student refuse this option or come up with an alternative for the assignment, I was so disappointed and I let her know.

    You have to meet your professors half way….ill help the students figure out how they can show their participation, but they still have to do it.

    • Tara Malone

      Thank you for sharing your experiences as well! I very much like your approach of presenting multiple options for students to show their participation. The story of the student who was able to overcome her anxiety and thrive in the classroom is particularly inspiring. It is wonderful that with your support, she was able to overcome her anxiety of speaking in class.

  • Elizabeth West

    Great article! Teachers can also take advantage of technology, such as PadLy, where students can write comments on their computer or device and the teacher can post the comments to the class. I am a teacher who is an introvert myself and try to make sure there are choices of how to share and participate with the class. However, everyone whether introvert or extrovert needs to be able to speak up for himself/herself at times, and if the classroom is comfortable and nonthreatening, sometimes an introvert will indeed use the opportunity to speak up. Allowing wait time– in fact ASKING the class to think about something for five minutes before answering– improves everyone’s answers and gives introverts more of a chance to respond.

    • Tara Malone

      Thank you for sharing some of the strategies you use in your classroom. They sound like great ways to support introverted students.

  • Tasha

    The point in the article is well taken, but it is important to understand that speaking in class is not a punishment. It is a skill that anyone, including introverts, can develop and conquer. Students must also understand that learning is often uncomfortable. Working through that discomfort is a part of higher learning.

    To educate means to “educe”–to bring out or bring forth, and often times that process is facilitated through dialogue. Taking notes from a lecture is not the end all of higher learning, and neither is written communication. Professors are saddled with all manner of responsibilities and it’s just not feasible to have one-on-one email communication with every student who identifies as an introvert. In reality, being comfortable speaking with your peers about difficult topics is essential in the work place. Students should challenge themselves to practice, even if the first time was embarrassing or a disaster, keep at it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

    Thinking on your feet is also a skill that one can learn and perfect. For those who have trouble processing information and are slower to formulate their thoughts, they can write down their ideas first before speaking, which is what I have my students do. Or I also have them identify passages and quotes from the reading to pose to the group so that everyone has an entry point, at least, for class discussions. If students still need time to process their thoughts, there are services available now on most college campuses. But the key is to work through that anxiety (which does in fact sounds like a little bit of anxiety from what you describe above.) It can be done. I’ve done it! I’ve seen other students do it as well.

    While finding multiple opportunities for students to contribute is a good thing, doing so at the expense of speaking in front of your peers, I believe is a disservice. Being an introvert does not mean people are incapable or that they will never become comfortable speaking up. Learning is often uncomfortable. And those who are talkative in class are not simply aggressive chatter boxes. Sometimes they feel compelled because silence seems unnecessary in a room full of thinking people. Instead of burdening a professor with more work and more emails (and there are tons of emails and it is unlikely that there is only one “introvert” in class), students should practice writing down ideas and points to contribute before class and while in class, and challenge themselves to keep at it! You can do it. You can conquer it. Being shy at first or having a fear of competing with articulate peers is normal. But don’t stop there. Keep trying! The more you practice, the better you will get, and your skill set will make you more marketable and effective in whatever field you choose. If the issue is about processing information, I would suggest Disability Services, or preparing contributions before class, or writing down some of your thoughts before speaking, and learning to trust yourself more and not think so deeply about competition that it becomes paralyzing.

  • Garrett Epp

    Another thing instructors can do is set up specific discussion points on a course moodle (or whatever the institution uses), and make participation there mandatory (but not individually graded). Students have an opportunity to respond to each other as well as to the topic at hand, and have time to formulate their responses. I have often started a class quoting a student comment made on the moodle, allowing for some further class discussion or clarification before moving on to a new topic, new material. And it became evident to all that some of the quietest students were the most active and articulate on the moodle, sometimes leading the class as a whole into new territory.

    • Tara Malone

      This is another great idea! Thanks for sharing.

  • William Ambrose

    I have been a professor for 35 years. Sooner or later students need to learn how to speak up. Special treatment will not get them there. Talk to the professor, work it out, do not complain to the dean.

    • Robert Miles

      Our society constantly values extroverted traits over introverted traits, it’s inherent in your comment “learn how to speak up.” Maybe you should stop and think about that first? I know the older I’ve gotten, the better I can speak in group meetings/classrooms because I’ve thought about the material before or have a solid idea of what I think. However, if it’s new or interesting, I’m more apt to want to listen and take in what others, the professor, or presenter are saying than participate because I am actively listening and reflecting on it. This is very evident in my papers that it has surprised some professors.

  • Melania Almonte

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring article; it has given me a new perspective on students’ struggle. I have been dealing with this since I’m an ESL teacher, and, as you imagine, a big part of assessment is based on our students’ speaking skills. It’s difficult for me to skip evaluating students’ participation, because what we aim is fostering fluency and coherence, so it’s really hard for introverts. Advice is welcomed. Thanks.

    • Tara Malone

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. You raise a really important point about ESL and foreign language classes in general where speaking is an essential part of learning a language. Based on my own experience with language classes I found it helpful when our teacher divided the class into pairs to work on speaking exercises and would check in from time to time. I personally found it took away much of the pressure of speaking in front of the entire class.

  • Tabi Jozwick

    For me, it depends on the topic. If it’s something that I’m interested in, I will participate more, if not, I would tend to zone out.

  • Sultan Yusuf

    As an introvert, school days were the most challenging of all time for me. When ever i remember about those days i feel so bad, and i don’t know why. It’s not easy to be an introverted person in today’s world, but at least we know that we are different from others and we can manage our lives.

    • Tara Malone

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m so sorry you had such a difficult time in school and I fear these kinds of experiences are all too familiar to introverts. I too have found that introverts are often overlooked and misunderstood in the world we live in. I found Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking to be very helpful. It gives valuable scientific insights on the mind of the introvert and some ideas for how to manage in today’s world. I highly recommend it for both introverts and extroverts.

      • Sultan Yusuf

        thanks Tara, I already read that book and it’s fascinating and full of hope.

  • Robert Miles

    Class size and course load can make the emails very unfeasible for a professor. In the military, for my trainees, they were assigned readings and I would say ahead of time what we are going to discuss in class and be prepared. (I’m an introvert so I was trying to help other introverts) The way I set it up, everyone was going to speak, I would be going around the room etc. This was my middle ground to help introverts and to see who was doing the required reading.

    • Tara Malone

      Thank you for sharing the techniques you used to help your introverted students. Giving some specific guidelines on what will be discussed sounds like another helpful way for introverts to gather their thoughts in advance.

  • Heather

    I have found myself in both the introverted and extroverted situations in classroom participation.

    One of the reasons for classroom participation is for group learning. I can generally be someone who speaks up with both responses and questions. But, I am conscious of trying not to dominate the conversation. I sometimes hold back so that others have a chance to speak.

    I appreciate learning from other’s people’s perspectives. I am often frustrated and sad when a classroom is quiet because I feel cheated of an education that lacks discussion, exploration and alternative points of view.

    Although it is wonderful that teachers and professors can be sensitive to introverts and provide them with alternatives to participation, perhaps finding ways where that participation can benefit the whole class would be helpful. This might be a tall order, but perhaps it would be more condusive to group learning.

    Also, professors who can encourage the more extroverted students to help create that safe space for discussion, would be beneficial.

    • Tara Malone

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. I very much agree with your suggestion that professors can do more to create a safe space and can encourage the extroverted students to do the same.