How to Include Introverts in Class Discussion

How to include introverted students in class discussions.

Would you prefer to go to a party with 50 exciting, brand-new people that you’ve never met before, or would you prefer to have dinner with an old, dear friend? You’ve probably guessed already that extroverts would prefer the party and introverts would prefer dinner with a friend. But what does this have to do, in particular, with learning and students in our classroom discussions? Temperament influences our preferences for learning, and introverts have particular preferences about how they would choose to learn.

Not only is it a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of where introverts produce their best work and the conditions under which they are best suited for learning. Introverted students tend to be very comfortable with solitary learning. They’re comfortable doing their learning through reading, research, writing, and sitting in a large lecture hall listening to someone.

Introverts are usually quite happy being alone, so the kinds of learning that lets them participate on their own are within their comfort zone. It’s also typical of introverts to prefer to have some time to think before they speak. And in that thinking, they have an opportunity to sort out their thoughts, clarify their own thinking, and come to some creative kinds of thinking and some deep reflections.

Many introverts are comfortable using written formats to clarify their thinking. They like to write things down before they’re asked to share them, and those writing opportunities allow them to think through the subject before speaking. Knowing these preferences and understanding the kinds of learning strategies that bring about the best results for introverts is important to us as faculty members.

To sum up introversion, it’s really a matter of difference. A good analogy might be to think about the difference between left-handed people and right-handed people. One is not better than the other. One is not right, and the other is not wrong. They’re simply differences, but they’re differences that have implications. And as left-handed folks have had to try to learn how to live in a world that might be designed for right-handed people, so too do introverts in our classrooms sometimes struggle to feel like they should be more extroverted.

Technology options for introverts

The first option is online discussions. Introverts sometimes thrive in an online discussion forum situation because they have time. They have time to read other students’ posts. They have time to think about what they might like to say in response. They may have time to do some reading and connect their reading to their online discussion post. And they certainly have time to write before posting.

An online discussion forum can be a good addition, one that’s really within the comfort zone and the learning style of more introverted students. Many of today’s faculty have started using Twitter, and many of our students are very comfortable with social media. Twitter is a quick way for students to respond in 140 characters to a point that could be made in class or to a discussion that’s happening, and many introverted students are quite comfortable using Twitter as an informal way of contributing to a discussion. You could show the tweets up on your projection screen, or the exercise could be something that happens before, after, or between classes.

Nontech options for introverts

There are some nontech or no-tech options as well that really do give opportunities for students on the introverted end of the spectrum to participate without having to raise their hand and contribute in a large-class discussion.

Exit passes are a simple tool. This might be something that the faculty member designs and gives out to all students in class, something the students need to pass in before the end of the class as they leave the room or the lecture hall. On your exit pass, you might have formulated a question. You might ask students to respond to something that interested them in the day’s discussion. Or you might ask them to apply something they’ve read to the conversation that just took place in class. It’s an easy way to capture the ideas of students who may be engaged in class but who aren’t raising their hands to participate.

Secondly, cue cards are a simple option to find out what’s going on in the heads of those introverted students who aren’t talking in your classroom. You can use a set of 3×5 cue cards, one for each class, and, again, there are some options. The faculty member may ask students to summarize in 3–5 sentences the key ideas from that day’s class, or they could be asked to respond to reading or connect readings with the day’s discussion, a very simple technique that enlarges the number of students participating in the discussion.

Finally, many faculty members use question boxes and, again, this tool is a great one for introverted students to share their questions that might come up during a class discussion but that they may be reluctant to raise their for hand and speak about. I like to use question boxes on a break in the middle of class. If we’ve had a conversation partway through class, as students are going to take their break, I ask them to put a question in their question box, and I take a few minutes to look at them on the break and respond.

All of these methods are great ways for students who are on the introverted end of the spectrum to contribute without having to raise their hands in a large class, something that might be well beyond their comfort zone. However, just as we want our students to build upon their strengths, we also want our students to develop new skills and to grow. I’d like to suggest some strategies that you can use to encourage verbal participation in class discussions from all students but especially introverts, who may be less comfortable sharing in a large-group setting.

These are suggestions that might take students out of their comfort zone, encourage them to stretch, but we need to do that with some support. It’s important to think about what happens on day one of any given class. If you don’t establish norms, they get established for themselves. So it’s important to think about who does the talking on the first day. If the faculty member is the only one doing the talking, and you come back on the second week and are surprised that no one is contributing verbally to your discussions, it may be because unwittingly you set a norm on day one that faculty members do the talking and not students.

On the first day of class, it’s important that you give students an opportunity to join the conversation. For introverted students, that might feel daunting, but if you use a developmental approach, it’s something that they can certainly do with some support.

Partnered activities are a great place to begin, and even the most introverted students are likely to be comfortable if you simply ask them to turn to the person next to them, review the syllabus, come up with one idea that they share in common from the content that they’re both interested in, and between the two members come up with a question about the syllabus—maybe about your participation policy.

Partnered activities are a great way to communicate, and in your class, everybody will contribute. Everybody has something to say, and everybody will do that right from the first day. It’s great to remind students that everyone contributes to the learning that goes on, even though that might happen differently from one person to the next. In addition, there are some really good simple strategies to encourage verbal participation from a wider range of students, including more introverted students, and wait time is the first one.

Wait time is the time between when you ask a question and when you take the first response. And typically, it’s a pretty short timeframe. Extending that wait time to just ten seconds, which can seem interminable, is really reflection time for the introvert. If you take a little bit longer between when you ask the question and when you take the first response, you might see more hands going up, and one of those hands might actually be of an introverted student who has had some time to think about the question before responding.

Think-ink-pair-share is another simple strategy, one that you may already be familiar with. Think-pair-share (minus the “ink”) is probably the most commonly used active learning strategy in college and university classrooms across North America, and it usually goes something like this: a faculty member asks the question and says,  “Think about it, then turn to your partner and share your ideas.”

The extroverts in the room have turned this right away into pair-share; as soon as the faculty member asks the question, they’ve got something that they want to say and turn to their partners and start talking. This of course disadvantages the introverts, who would like to have a little bit more time to reflect. If you make this truly a think-ink-pair-share, it would sound something like this: “Take a minute to think about this question. Then take another minute to write down your thoughts.”

If you want to let your students know that everyone contributes in class and everyone contributes differently, then having a random approach to calling on students to participate after a think-ink-pair-share really works well. I’ve used something called numbered heads. So, for example, if students are working in groups of four, at the end of their conversation, I would ask them to randomly count themselves off one, two, three, and four. And then I have those numbers on slips of paper that I’ve put into my coffee cup (without the coffee), and I ask a student to randomly pull out a number.

If the student pulls out the number two, then number twos in those small groups report back. Even introverted students who know that you’re going to use this system will at least have some notice. They know that they may be called on and, given some time to prepare, are more likely to be able to respond.

Some faculty members use cold calling and use it as a way to make their students accountable, accountable for having read the material, for having prepared for class ahead of time, and for participating. I prefer to do something called cool calling. And cool calling is a strategy that works better for introverts because it gives them some preparation. Cool calling in my classroom might look something like this. While my students are working in groups of three or four, I wander around and eavesdrop on the conversations. And if I hear a particularly good idea, I might wander over to that student and say, “Hey, Tamika, that was a great idea. When the large group comes back together, would you be willing to participate and share your idea?”

And if Tamika is an introverted student, she has some advance notice and an invitation—she’s not being called on on the spot, and she has the choice of whether to participate. Given the advanced preparation, time to think about what she said, and an invitation, even if Tamika is introverted, she may be more likely to participate.

These are just four simple strategies to encourage verbal participation in ways that help your introverted students to stretch beyond their comfort zones.

It’s important to remember that difference is a good thing, and differences in our classrooms are what make classrooms rich, vibrant learning sessions. Introversion and extroversion are just one example of those kinds of differences, but if we think about respecting and celebrating differences, our classrooms become great places to be.

For more on this topic, read Classroom Practices that Support Introverts and Extroverts

Nicki Monahan is a faculty advisory at George Brown College and a member of the Teaching Professor Conference advisory board.

Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor program, How Do I Include Introverts in Classroom Discussion?

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