What Teachers Need to Know About Their Introverted Students and Class Participation

A teacher and his students

In a lot of cases, it backfires to use participation grades to force introverted students to speak in class.

I cannot count the number of times professors have either called on me, expected me to “contribute to the discussion,” or probably labeled me as “the shy kid who never has anything to say” in their heads during class. And it’s now become an everyday affair. 

I’m not just an introvert, but also a highly sensitive person (HSP), which means I get overstimulated easily, am highly empathic, and absorb others’ emotions as my own (to name just a few traits). Plus, I have social anxiety, so classroom environments have always been hell for me. 

Growing up, both professors and my peers knew me as the “smart kid,” which is why I made no effort to raise my hand and answer questions in class. The second reason for never raising my hand was I would start trembling every time I did voluntarily do it and answer a question. So I decided I didn’t want to face that kind of stress and discomfort for something so trivial. 

And that’s essentially why I stopped participating in class altogether. That is, until it was time for me to go to college. Oh, man. 

These days, I study at a private liberal arts university with small classroom sizes — we have anywhere from about 20 to 40 people in most classes. Class participation is a key component of practically every course I take. It accounts for a large portion of my grade, something that I consider extremely unfair and feel very strongly against. 

Yes, I do believe that learning to interact with others is a crucial skill that all introverts need to develop. But being forced to do so isn’t necessarily the only way — the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t always work. In fact, in a lot of cases, it backfires. Let’s take me as an example.

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Skipping Classes Due to Social Anxiety 

Social anxiety is a nightmare. But mine got so bad that I started skipping classes simply because I couldn’t fathom the thought of sitting in class with others and being called on to answer questions… then feeling alienated if I failed to do so. Yes, this really happened. Being graded for class participation made my social anxiety even worse. And I noticed that there was often a clear divide between the introverted and extroverted students in my class. 

I’ve heard somewhere that extroverts think by speaking and introverts think by thinking. The more I began observing the extroverts and introverts in my class, the more I began to realize how true that was. Extroverts really do seem to think by speaking. On the contrary, if somebody asks me a question spontaneously, I take several minutes to form an answer, making sure it’s prim, polished, and ready to go. I’ve often felt like my thoughts come more slowly to me than they do to my extroverted friends, but that’s not really the case. It’s just that I, as an introvert, take a little longer to say what I think out loud — and that’s perfectly okay.

What Teachers Need to Understand About Their Introverted Students 

It is absolutely necessary that teachers, including university professors, cultivate understanding and empathy for their introverted students. This is a real problem — I’m not the only introverted student out there. A lot of introverts suffer tremendously because of the existence of a class participation grade, and forced participation. Making introverted students push themselves out of their comfort zones every day isn’t the solution — at least, it’s not a healthy one. 

Personally, I can learn perfectly well inside my comfort zone. In fact, I thrive inside my comfort zone. Turning concepts over and over in my own head (which some may call overthinking), making mental notes, and writing down what I observe are some things I excel at as an introvert. And isn’t that what learning is all about?

The sad truth is that introvert-friendly classrooms do not exist at a lot of educational institutions across the globe. Forcing introverted students to participate in class — which is something most of them dread — isn’t getting us anywhere. If we know so much about the science of introversion and extroversion, why aren’t we encouraging universities to use that science? Why aren’t we encouraging them to take this knowledge seriously?

The same goes for group projects. While sometimes we introverts can get away with doing more of the work and letting the extroverts do the presenting, other times, this is not the case and everyone is forced to participate. This, too, is unfair. 

Is social anxiety holding you back?

Although social anxiety is not the same thing as introversion, many introverts experience this painful and isolating condition. The truth is you can beat social anxiety, and our partner Natasha Daniels can show you how. This means more relaxed conversations, more enjoyable work/school days, and more social invitations that you don’t immediately decline (unless you want to, of course!). Click here to check out her online class for kids and adults, How to Crush Social Anxiety.

Something has to change. Introverted students need to be provided alternatives to getting grades, alternatives for class participation. It’s the least that education systems can do. And we introverts need to be listened to better when we do decide to make a contribution, because our contributions are often very well-thought-out and valuable. 

If I were a professor, I would keep an eye out for the introverted student who stays silent during the conversation, but listens intently to what the other students are saying and where the conversation is going. That kid is probably going to have incredibly useful insights at the end of the conversation. Something we can’t overlook is that listening well is a very important skill that introverts tend to be naturally good at

It is often the gregarious, talkative students that become the teacher’s favorites, and the “quiet ones” that are overlooked. I’ve experienced this first-hand, so I’m speaking from experience. I’m sure many of you can probably relate, too.

Schools are supposed to help you learn and grow as an individual. But if introverts are anxious and depressed because they cannot get themselves to constantly participate, then what are educational institutions really doing? Are they helping them learn and grow as individuals? The answer is a resounding no. 

Communication in the classroom is necessary, but so are some skills that we do not often attach enough value to, like simply listening, quiet reflection, memorization, and observation. We can help introverted students tremendously by listening to what they have to say, doing away with class participation grades, making classrooms calmer places to learn in, and taking their needs into consideration. 

Because, even though introverted students are uncomfortable speaking up in class, they are often intelligent, and they have a lot of potential, marvelous ideas, and a lot of things they really, really want to say. But when they choose to, not when they are forced to.

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