A water lily exudes peace in isolation, yet its participation in the ecosystem is vital.

I am a self-described “hard-core introvert”. When I leave the classroom after a three-hour class session or a series of engagements with students lingering after class to ask questions, I am so utterly exhausted that I basically go hide in my office for 15–30 minutes before engaging with another soul. While I enjoy the dynamics of a lively classroom, they simply drain my energy reserves. The trouble is, when I run out of energy, I’m unable to concentrate on the flow of conversation. Then I come across as absent-minded, easily distracted, and, well, weird. As an hard-core introvert, I have to carefully monitor my participation in social activity so I don’t run out of energy right when I need it most. Over the years, I’ve found ways to engage in large-group conversations that work with my varying levels of emotional energy and still let me contribute to discussions. I’ve also learned to plan my schedule to build in recharge time between draining events.

If you’re familiar with the late Noodle the Pug, you know the difference between a “bones day” and a “no bones day”. That poor old pup sometimes had the energy to face the world…and sometimes didn’t. We got what we got. If you’re familiar with Christine Miserandino’s “spoon theory”, it’s the same idea. People only have so much energy available in reserve, and we have to manage what’s available. This is especially true for people with chronic illness, hidden disabilities like neurodivergence, or strong introversion. We simply cannot be “on” all the time like it seems other people can.

The Classroom as Social Space

A class is a unique environment wherein people work together to think through ideas, practice skills, and share perspectives. In larger lecture-based classes, a student’s participation is purely self-serving. In those classes, “participation” takes the form of presence, attention, and note-taking. Those tasks improve the student’s ability to do the coursework on their own but do nothing to benefit the class. But in smaller, seminar-style classes (common in English and especially writing programs), the focus is often on what students contribute to the discussion. In those cases, student participation takes the form of active engagement, contribution to conversation, and idea generation. In other words, “participation” in lecture classes is passive; participating in a seminar is an active process. That activity can be draining or challenging for some.

Yet that activity is essential in a small-class setting. These kinds of classes thrive on the open engagement of the people in the room at the time. In other words, the class is the discussion. As I’ve written elsewhere, without active, dynamic conversation, class is simply a lecture in disguise. Small classes thrive on active participation of everyone in the room. They live or die based on what students contribute. For students unfamiliar with seminar classes, or for introverted students uncomfortable speaking up, this situation presents a very real challenge.

Common Participation Non-Solutions

I’m obviously not the first to notice these challenges. And I’m certainly not the first to write about the problem of participation for introverts. But I’ve found that the existing discourse surrounding introvert participation takes one of two approaches:

  1. Introverts need to compensate by overachieving on independent aspects of the class. They should focus on essays, preparatory note taking, or talking to the professor alone outside class.
  2. Teachers need to change what they expect of students, count conferences as participation, or stop insisting on participation altogether.

Trouble is, neither of those approaches benefits the class. Journal articles about participation discuss grading students’ participation as a skill demonstrating mastery, which is quite different from a skill contributing to a shared learning environment. With each of these common solutions, the message is essentially that there’s no hope for introverts. Introverts, we are told, shouldn’t be expected to engage a large class. These so-called “solutions” imply that an introvert has nothing of value to offer a class discussion. They suggest that we shouldn’t expect introverts to contribute.

Those “solutions” are offensive to introverts and unacceptable for a small, seminar-based course.

Instead, our goal should be to get introverted students actively engaged in class. We need to find engagement methods that lean on the introvert’s strengths and benefit the whole class. And above all else, we need to avoid the cop-out of isolated work. I have yet to find any documents telling introverted students what they can uniquely contribute to a class environment. No article I’ve found gives introverts suggestions for success in class participation.

Let’s change that.

Redefining “Participation”

Many people—students and instructors alike—think that participation means taking the lead in a conversation, asserting new ideas, or just talking a lot. At the other extreme, some folks think merely showing up equates to participating. Both of those approaches are wrong. To better understand the possibilities, we need to think of participation from the perspective of the benefit gained by the group.

Benefit 1: The Wrap-Up

In her National Geographic Strategy Share, Jenn Gilgan explains the differences between extravert and introvert conversational approaches. Extraverts, Gilgan says, “enjoy getting to know others and sharing their interests with others.” This means they are quick to contribute. When a teacher asks what people think about something, the extraverts are grateful for the chance to share. On the other hand, Gilgan says, introverts would “rather observe, think, and then contribute after processing all they’ve taken in.” That’s what gives introverts the reputation for being quiet—they rarely are first to speak. Instead, they’re first to process. As Liz Fosslien and Mollie West explain, introverts “will often compare old and new experiences when making a decision, which slows the processing down but leads to carefully thought-out decisions.” That’s obviously a beneficial outcome, but the process takes time.

Most introverts already know this about ourselves. Plenty of teaching guides encourage instructors to wait a bit at the end of a topic before moving on. The goal is to give introverts a chance to contribute. That’s all fine and good, but even that approach views introversion as a handicap. In addition, having to attend to a developing conversation while processing means introverts often struggle to feel in-sync with the discussion.

How, then, can this slower processing benefit a group discussion? Introverts can shine by offering a wrap-up of a discussion. Whereas an extravert is happy to get things started, an introvert can do a much better job of delivering the take-away point or summarizing what others have said. In other words, introverts can close out a discussion with as much enthusiasm as extraverts open them.

Benefit 2: Making Connections

Because of their constant processing habit, introverts are especially good at finding connections between ideas. Highlighting a connection that hasn’t been discussed yet can help the group see the existing conversation in a new light, adding insight to what’s already been said. I learned this in my high-school AP classes. I would listen intently to conversations, realize something that I thought was perfectly obvious to everyone, casually mention it to the group, and be shocked by how many others said my idea had never occurred to them. Eventually I learned that the way I think takes longer but brings things together better. What’s obvious to me is often novel to others. Sharing those connections became my ticket to discussion success in high school. It felt easy for me to do, yet others seemed to really appreciate my contributions.

Benefit 3: Asking Questions

One consequence of processing slowly and making connections is that it rarely leads to clear answers. New connections are often tentative, needing to be explored before they’re fully understood. And with the complex ideas typically discussed in college seminars, those connections might need a lot of unpacking before they make complete sense.

That’s where questions come in handy. When an introvert has a hunch about something, asking the room about that hunch invites them to join the processing. Asking questions prompts the group to help introverts think. And as I’ve explained above, the thinking introverts do is uncommon and valuable. Asking questions about discussion doesn’t show weakness or ignorance. It shows engagement and contemplation, both of which are valuable contributions to a discussion.

During new-faculty orientation at Kean, I developed a reputation as “the guy who asks good questions”. I didn’t try to earn that reputation. I just made sure to chime in when I wanted help understanding something I hadn’t quite figured out. Come to find out, other people either had the same question already or realized they wanted to know the answer, too. I learned later that some of the orientation presenters talked about me to each other after their presentations. What I thought was normal behavior ended up being noteworthy participation, entirely by accident.

Conclusion

Introverts are uncommon. We make up about 25% of the population. But because we get easily overstimulated, we often enjoy less visibility and acknowledgement in society than our already-small numbers would suggest. But with a subtle shift in perspective, we can learn to thrive in a culture that at times seems designed to make us miserable. Introverts in a discussion-based class need to lean in on their strengths. Their tendencies toward quiet thought actually make them the perfect candidates for a special kind of class participation. Introverts should work within their comfort zones to ask questions, make connections, and offer summary thoughts. What might seem obvious to an introvert rarely occurs to extraverts. Joining a conversation with an insight after others have spent time talking is a great way to contribute and benefit the entire class. Introverts need to participate more in class. They offer a unique kind of thinking that’s more valuable than most folks would have us believe.

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