Engaging Introverts in Class Discussion - Part 1

Engaging Introverts in Class Discussion - Part 1

Part 1 of a two-part series.  In this part, Schwegman discusses introverted students and their disadvantage in American higher education. Adapted from Schwegman's paper Teaching Class Discussion to Introverts and Extroverts.

Introversion and extroversion

Smiling Caucasian female student, outdoors, listening to another student Why do some students contribute frequently to class discussions, while others speak up only rarely? Anyone who has taught a seminar-style class has probably wrestled with this conundrum. As instructors, we know that seminars can be exhilarating experiences when they engage everyone in the room, yet all too often they involve only a fraction of the class. How can we reach these quiet students?

Educational theorists point to a number of different factors that can affect student participation, including the amount of student preparation, the size and arrangement of the classroom, how participation is graded, student levels of confidence or classroom apprehension, and differences arising from race, gender, or culture (Rocca, 2010).

In my own teaching, however, I’ve also had some success drawing on the insights of personality psychology. I’ve found two categories particularly useful: extroversion and introversion.

Many will be familiar with these categories from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a popular personality test often used by career counselors. Extroverts, according to this theory, draw their energy from social interaction, and as a result, are often outspoken and gregarious. Introverts, by contrast, find social interactions draining and need time alone to recharge their energy. This is not to say that introverts are necessarily antisocial, nor should we conflate introversion with shyness. Many introverts become great public speakers, performers, or leaders, but they always need solitude afterwards to recharge. The two personality types also tend to prefer different kinds of social interactions. Whereas extroverts thrive in large groups and in the company of strangers, introverts often seek out one-on-one conversations or intimate gatherings with a few good friends.

Cain: The Power of Introverts

Several students, white and black, male and female, discussing in classI have long found this theory personally useful, but I never thought to connect it to education until I picked up a copy of Susan Cain’s recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Cain argues that introverts and extroverts also prefer different thinking styles. In keeping with their outward-oriented nature, extroverts like to bounce their ideas off of other people, using discussion as a way to test out rudimentary notions and see where they develop. Introverts, by contrast, do much of their best thinking alone. They prefer to work out problems in their heads before seeking feedback, and they sometimes find meetings distracting. Neither style is necessarily better or worse than the other; in fact, a healthy institution needs some of both. The best ideas benefit from exposure to outside perspectives and criticisms. At the same time, too much extroversion can lead to a pernicious “groupthink,” where charisma triumphs over substance.

Cain draws this distinction within the context of her larger argument, which is that American society routinely discriminates on the basis of personality. Our culture has come to view extroversion as a universal ideal, despite the fact that introverts make up from a third to a half of our population. This attitude informs everything from our hiring decisions, to our choice of role models, our parenting strategies, and the design of our institutions—including educational institutions. American schools and universities, she argues, place a much higher heavier emphasis on class discussion than those in many other countries. This orientation favors students who can think on their feet out loud, pitch their ideas to others, and work collaboratively in groups. In the worst-case scenario, we may even conflate extroversion with academic ability.

Such biases are especially worrisome at a multicultural university like Stanford, because they can potentially verge on a form of cultural discrimination. Not all societies, Cain reminds us, share our American fascination with extroversion. What happens when a student from a culture that reveres introversion as a norm enters an American classroom?

Cultural disadvantages of introversion

Caucasian and Asian female and male students sitting, listening, not speakingStanford cultural psychologist Heejung Kim explored this question in a 2002 experiment conducted right here on the Farm. Kim recruited several dozen Stanford undergraduates and asked them to take a series of simple logic puzzles. Unbeknownst to the students, she specifically selected participants from two target demographics. While all of the participants spoke English as their first language, half were second-generation East Asian Americans, while the other half were Caucasian students with third- or older-generation European ancestry. Both groups performed similarly under control conditions, where they were allowed to solve the puzzles in any manner they chose. But when asked to work while vocalizing their thought processes out loud, the Asian American students tended to answer fewer questions correctly.

Kim speculates that cultural differences might help to explain this disparity. In the West, she suggests, we have a long tradition—philosophical as well as cultural—of conflating thinking with speaking. Yet many East Asian cultures tend instead to associate learning with introspection: attitudes that—like the American fondness for extroversion—are deeply encoded in their schools, families, and institutions. Although born in the United States, second-generation Asian American students may continue to internalize these norms through the practices they grew up with in their families. In short, an individual’s preference for thinking silently or out loud may have cultural roots, cemented through years of socialization.

Cain herself lends further weight to this hypothesis in her book, where she examines the much more introverted norms that prevail within the heavily Asian-American high schools and communities of Cupertino. Many of these students, she shows, face difficulties transitioning to more extroverted universities like Stanford, where they encounter teachers and peers that expect more exuberant classroom behavior.

Of course these kinds of sweeping cultural generalizations are difficult to substantiate and can easily be carried too far. Yet given Stanford’s commitment to cultivating a diverse student body, they ought at least to give us pause. Are our methods of instruction and assessment fair? Do our classrooms give both introverts and extroverts opportunities to contribute in their uniquely valuable ways, or do they force every student to conform to the model of a single personality type?

Next up:  In Part 2, Schwegman gives five classroom-tested practices to make seminars more accessible to introverts.

Further Reading

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

Dweck, Carol. “Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb.” In Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, edited by Robert Sternberg, 24–41. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theater. New York: Routledge, 1992. The sections most relevant to education are “Notes on Myself” and “Spontaneity.”

Kim, Heejung. “We Talk, Therefore We Think? A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 828–42.

Pannapacker, William. “Screening Out the Introverts.” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 15, 2012), http://chronicle.com/article/Screening-Out-the-Introverts/131520/ (accessed August 27, 2013).

Rocca, Kelly. “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Communication Education 59 (2010): 185–213.