Chances are your college student can tell you about those classmates — the students whom associate lecturer Cabell Gathman and her sociology colleagues find particularly challenging.
They come in all forms: the loud student who dominates the discussion without care for wider participation or deep thought, or the reserved student who eye rolls after a peer’s comment, or the student who thinks the least participation wins the popularity contest.
“You can have a group and have one student who totally screws up the dynamic for everyone,” Gathman says. And when that student isn’t there, she says, “it’s a completely different room.”
Such is the complexity of the college classroom, where students of all backgrounds merge to learn and interact. Many variables influence how comfortable students feel about participating in class. Prior knowledge of course topics plays a key role, especially on sensitive issues, says Gathman, who has taught courses on gender, sexuality, and race. Underrepresentation is also a factor, adds Mark Connolly, an associate research scientist and principal investigator at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research who studies the disproportionate number of minority students switching from math and science majors. He notes that white males often make up the majority in science classrooms, and “anyone who doesn’t fit in that prevailing picture can sometimes question what they have to contribute to the class and how it will be received.”
While there are many layers to the classroom environment, one constant factor is personality. Weekly discussion sections can offer both an exhilarating opportunity for extroverts and an overwhelming experience for introverts. And although these two personality traits may seem at inherent odds, they need each other — and can learn from each other — say UW experts.
Defining introvert and extrovert
Sybil Pressprich, senior career and educational counselor at the Division of Continuing Studies, frequently administers the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI], a well-known personality test. She emphasizes that introverts aren’t always shy and extroverts aren’t always outgoing. Tests such at the MBTI define extroversion and introversion as the difference in how people focus their attention and get their energy.
- Find sources of energy through the external world
- Feel drained by too much time alone and recharge with outside interaction
- Focus on making many friends and acquaintances
- Prefer to learn through actions
Introverts, on the other hand:
- Harness energy from inside of themselves — their ideas, their thoughts, their feelings
- Feel drained by too much outside interaction and recharge with time alone
- Focus on cultivating a few close friendships
- Prefer to learn through observations
“Extroverts tend to do something, then think about it, and then do it again,” Connolly says. “Introverts think first, then do, and then reflect again.”
How personality manifests in the classroom
The term “introvert” carries with it a strong stigma in American culture, argues author Susan Cain in her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain says that our institutions, including schools, are designed for extroverts, even though introverts make up one-third to half of the population.
Both Pressprich and Connolly, who each keep a copy of Cain’s book on their desks, agree that the college classroom tends to play to the skills and strengths of extroverts. Curricula often include oral presentations, group projects, and participation grades for discussion sections. “We tend to put a lot of emphasis on who’s participating the most, who’s willing to share their great ideas the most,” Pressprich says. “Sometimes I think we miss the depth that can come from somebody who really ponders a question.”
Introverts can take solace in several staples of college learning: lectures, papers, and exams. But when it comes to discussion sections, which usually consist of twenty or so students, finding spots to insert their ideas can be daunting. The preferred speech patterns of introverts and extroverts conflict in the classroom, Pressprich says. Introverts prefer breaks of silence to think, formulate, and share ideas, while extroverts prefer continuous dialogue — sometimes drowning out opportunities for introverts.
“There is sound research showing that this introversion-extroversion temperament is real and makes a difference in how people participate in learning experiences,” Connolly says.
In many ways, introverts and extroverts need each other in the classroom. When introverts are given time to reflect and share, Pressprich says, they can provide nuance and new perspectives. That said, however, introverts can filter their thoughts too much and never get around to speaking up. Here, extroverts help by “getting the ball rolling” and keeping the discussion alive.
“Certainly, the best is if you have some balance, with a willingness to bend your preference to make sure everybody is heard from, everybody is participating, and that it’s an inclusive community of learning, where people feel free and comfortable to say something that’s a little unconventional,” Pressprich says.
Advocating for a comfortable classroom environment
Many instructors recognize students’ strengths and weaknesses and balance out teaching strategies accordingly. If a student doesn’t feel comfortable talking in discussion sections, Gathman offers alternative modes of participating: coming into office hours to talk about material in a one-on-one environment; emailing questions and comments; writing short assignments, such as pass-fail papers and daily online comments; and submitting material to course Tumblr accounts.
At times, Gathman also has students discuss questions in small groups before involving the entire class. Connolly refers to this as the “think, pair, share” technique, in which introverts can heavily participate in developing ideas, but then step aside as extroverts share them with a larger audience.
Some UW instructors incorporate “clickers” and classroom response systems into their lectures, allowing students to answer questions with the touch of a handheld remote. Clickers are an effective way to give students — particularly introverts — enough time to think through a problem and easily participate, Connolly says. They also give instructors instant feedback on how well students are grasping the material; students, in turn, get a sense for how well they are keeping up with the rest of the class.
If introverted students aren’t comfortable with a course’s channels of participation, Pressprich and Connolly say, they can advocate for themselves in a variety of ways:
- Ask an instructor to send discussion questions ahead of class so you can prepare comments earlier.
- Ask an instructor for five to seven seconds of “wait time” after questions so you have enough time to think and respond.
- Feel free to call a “timeout” during class to circle back to a previous discussion topic once you’ve had more time to contemplate it.
- Get contact information from classmates early in the semester so you can study together and discuss class material outside of class.
- Work with the instructor to come up with a plan for better participation.
Instructors can’t accommodate every preference, but Gathman says they truly want to help students do better.
Balancing empowerment with skill-building
While it’s important for students to feel empowered by their innate introversion or extroversion, it’s equally important that they are willing to step out of their comfort zone and develop new skills, Pressprich and Connolly say.
“We live in a world where you have to do both,” Pressprich says. “There’s a time to extrovert, and there’s a time to introvert. The trick, of course, is to figure out in any given situation, do you need to extrovert or do you need to introvert? There’s some real benefit to being able to flex your personality.”
A student’s personality doesn’t limit career options, Pressprich adds. Introverts can thrive in more extroverted fields such as business, and extroverts can do well in the hard sciences. A willingness to try new approaches, refine skill sets, and be a more well-rounded person has long-term payoffs. Introverted students can benefit from developing teamwork, public speaking, and interpersonal skills. In turn, extroverted students can gain from becoming better observers, deeper thinkers, and more inclusive group facilitators.
The real challenge for students may be finding a healthy balance between venturing out of their comfort zone and embracing their true nature. “We don’t want people changing who they are — mostly because you can’t,” Pressprich says.
The Myth of Preferred Learning Styles
Do students have preferred learning styles? They may think they do, but there’s scarce research affirming that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles matter — or even exist.
“If you make some people use their preferred learning type and show they learn more, that would be pretty conclusive proof of this so-called style,” says Mark Connolly, an associate research scientist and principal investigator at the Wisconsin Center for Research. “But there’s no evidence [of that].”
Insisting on a learning style can actually be a counterintuitive crutch for students, Connolly says. For example, if an instructor lectures off a piece of paper rather than a PowerPoint, a student might walk in and think, “I’m a visual learner,” and use that as an excuse for poor attention or motivation. In reality, research shows that if all things are equal, the student will learn just as much from an auditory presentation as a visual one.
“The really important point is that clearly learners have differences,” Connolly says. “They have differences in their interests, abilities, and [background knowledge]. … But those things aside, there’s really no evidence that trying to teach to someone’s style leads them to learn better.”