Why the ‘Extroverted’ Classroom Doesn’t Work for Introverted Students

An introvert at school

Most classrooms are geared toward those who learn well in groups – which means introverts lose out.

Growing up as an introvert, going to school often involved being in classrooms that felt completely out of my comfort zone. I worried about what I would say in a presentation or what group I would be put into. No matter how much I studied or knew the material, all that mattered in those situations was how comfortable I was voicing myself in front of the class. I remember I would be so nervous about a presentation that I couldn’t focus on what I was learning or on other groups’ presentations.

Of course, this continued throughout college, except in college we got to choose our classes. I remember dropping, and switching between, quite a few classes on the first day when I realized just how many presentations and group projects there would be in the class. Professors would also sometimes require participation and base students’ grades off that (which is an introvert’s nightmare). For a while, I would allow this to stop me from taking certain classes.

While I agree that public speaking skills are needed and help students prepare for their future careers and everyday lives, I feel there should be more balance. Some people learn better when working independently and others work better in groups. A lot of times, however, classes are geared toward those who learn better in groups. In other words, extroverted learning styles are more the norm in classes vs. introverted learning styles.

What Are Introverted Learning Styles?

In general, introverts like to reflect and think deeply. In the classroom setting, this can mean having a preference to work independently. According to one university, introverts have a “solitary learning style” and like to brainstorm or consider all sides of something in their mind before taking the next step. They also often prefer discussing things with one other person rather than in a large group.

As introverts, constantly being told to “speak up” and socialize with others during group work can cause stress or anxiety. This can be a disadvantage because it can cause us to not work as well and not be able to focus on our tasks. Working in our own space — and in our preferred way — can lead to more productivity and success, and allow for our true thoughts and creativity to show in our work.

How Schools Tend to Favor Extroverted Learning Styles

In her interview for The Guardian, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, talks about how education naturally favors extroverts. This is because students are put in big classes, which automatically feels overstimulating for introverts. She says, “The best way of teaching, in general, is one on one, but that’s not something everyone can afford. So, school ends up becoming this place where introverted kids learn that they have to act like extroverts.”

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” Cain says that kids who prefer to work alone are seen as “outliers often or, worse, as problem cases.” She explains that even though introverts often get better grades, most teachers report believing that they consider the ideal student an extrovert.  

For students who do not fit that description, school can feel like a negative experience, especially when teachers act as if there is something wrong with being introverted and try to change it instead of understanding or accepting it. In her Introvert, Dear article on things teachers should know about introverted students, Kayla Mueller writes about her school experiences. She explains what teachers should be more aware of, such as introverts’ preference of working on their own, and that there’s nothing wrong with how they (we) are.

In general, the way everything works and is set up in classrooms can feel overwhelming for introverts. Often the desks are even set up in a way that’s meant for working in groups. The constant focus on discussing with others, rather than reflecting and working independently, can feel very unnatural for an introverted student. Often, introverts also get points taken off for not participating as much — or for using notes during presentations — unlike the extroverted students, who are more comfortable speaking on the spot.

In her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, Diana Senechal writes about how solitude is a part of our lives as humans and it’s needed in different aspects of our lives, like education or relationships. Senechal argues that the teaching methods used at schools don’t allow for the independent working and thinking needed for creativity and logical analysis.

What Can Be Done to Change Classroom Learning Styles

Schools that are geared towards extroverted learning styles can be a disadvantage for introverts and can get in the way of their success and the impact they have on the world. In this Psychology Today article, Allison Abrams, a licensed psychotherapist, writes, “While [introverts] may be the quiet ones in the group, one of the greatest strengths introverts possess is a keen power of observation. The best leaders are the best communicators, and the best communicators know how to listen.”

By changing certain teaching methods, teachers can make schools a better — and more effective — learning place for all of their students, including introverts. Some things that teachers can do are:

  • Give students a choice. It helps when students have a certain degree of choice in whether or not they share their ideas with the class and when they do it. If it’s on the spot and is required in order to pass the class, then introverts might feel nervous and less able to focus or perform their best. However, if participation is optional and a way to get more points, then they will have more time to think and are more likely to think of things to share.
  • Create a safe space for participation. As introverts, we’re more likely to share and want to participate if we feel the classroom is a safe space where we can speak up – and if we feel empowered to do so. When it is implied by other students — or the teacher — that we are “too quiet” or that we don’t know as much just because we don’t share, then this can discourage us from wanting to join discussions. Getting positive feedback and encouragement can help a lot and lead us to feel more confident, and comfortable, to participate.
  • Balance group work and individual work. It helps to have time in the classroom spent both on individual work and group work. This accommodates students with different learning styles. An example could be adding journaling time for students to reflect or allowing students to think on their own first and then get into small groups to share. Another way to allow introverts to process things ahead of time is to introduce topics the day before or provide a clear agenda beforehand.

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How Introverts Can Adapt in the Meantime

A lot can still be done as for how schools can approach students’ different learning styles. In the meantime, introverts shouldn’t feel like they don’t have control of the situation. We need to take control and do what is needed to be able to get the most out of our education.

One thing that can help is being as prepared as possible. By reading the material and familiarizing ourselves with the questions in our homework or classwork, it can make it a lot easier for us to speak up in discussions. We can even ask our teachers about the next day’s (or week’s) agenda in advance.

Another thing that helps is listening to what somebody says in a discussion and sharing your own observation(s) based on that. I learned this in one of my classes in college. The professor referred to it as “piggy-backing” your answers. It doesn’t mean that you are taking the other person’s idea. Instead, you are adding to the idea and saying what you think of it. I found this to be helpful for me in coming up with answers on the spot.

Our mindset also plays a big role in building the confidence to speak up in discussions or group work. For example, if we think we don’t have anything valuable to contribute to the conversation, it will be harder for us to think of something and want to share it. However, we should keep in mind that our opinions matter and our response doesn’t need to be perfect (even though we introverts tend to be perfectionists). Similar to other situations in life, our mindset in the classroom can affect what we do and how we act. A change in our perspective can make us feel better and help improve different things, such as our participation or performance in class.

Small Changes Can Have a Big Impact

Schools may be geared toward extroverts, but that doesn’t mean introverts can’t get the most out of their academic experience. There is still a lot of work to be done, but even just one teacher’s style can create change for introverts and impact many students’ lives. While working together with classmates through group work is an important thing to learn, classrooms could be better designed to suit all learning styles and incorporate different types of learning. It’s important that all students feel valued, heard, and understood. It’s also important for us to challenge ourselves with what we do have control over.

What is publicly discussed by teachers, students, or former students can largely impact how others view the situation, what is being done to change it, and how current introverted students feel about their classes. It’s important that we do what we can ourselves, while at the same time work toward changing the bigger picture. Even if you don’t see the changes you’d like happening, you can be the change and have a positive impact — both in and out of the classroom.

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I graduated from CSUN as a creative writing major. I’m an introverted person, but often an extroverted writer! I love to express myself through creativity, whether it’s writing, art, or music. I've written pieces for places such as San Gabriel Valley Now and The Love Story. To see more of my creative pieces, follow my Instagram page @tothebeatofmyart.