Leveling the playing field for introverts

Your hands feel ice-cold. Your mouth is dry. The question is asked again. 

In the silence, your hand slowly rises. Are you sure you can do this? Pushing through your breaking, shaking voice, you spill out an answer, praying that it makes sense. Although the moment lasted maybe 10 seconds, you feel like a deer in headlights: confused, dizzy, isolated and afraid that you might die. 

For many introverts struggling to participate in class, this scenario is all too real. The pressure to speak, knowing that up to 20% of your grade depends on it, is nerve-wracking and terrifying. Even if you are well-prepared for class, being in the spotlight can make your notes, reading and rehearsed answer go out the window, leaving you a blubbering, stuttering mess. 

Although class participation keeps students engaged and keeps the professor from talking to herself or himself, for introverted students, overcoming difficulties in personalities or with anxiety is a difficult task. Besides damaging grades and lowering self-confidence, class participation policies leave introverts feeling like they are not valued in the academic arena. 

Expressing his frustration over class participation policies, Tucker Stuart, junior graphic design major, shared that his grades have been negatively impacted by his introversion. Stuart said that he feels embarrassed getting a low score when he pays attention and receives good grades on his assignments. 

The Russian-roulette of introvert nightmares-being randomly called on by a professor-caught Emily Adamson, senior nursing major, off-guard on multiple occasions. “I just stared blankly or tried to say something, but it didn’t make much sense,” Adamson said. “Later, I would think of a better response, but the jumble of words that I had said earlier in the moment of panic were the words that everyone else in the class heard, not my well-thought-out response.” 

While professors may seem to unfairly target introverted students, they face their own difficulties with class participation. Michael Francis, assistant professor of biblical studies, seeks to help students learn more from interactions, rather than simply taking notes as he talks to a quiet room.

A class discussion is much more memorable than a PowerPoint. “You remember a question you asked,” Francis said. “You remember somebody’s response to you better than you remember recycling my voice in terms of note-taking.” 

Francis designed his participation policy to try to make both introverts and extroverts welcome in his classroom. “I think it would be wrong to penalize students who are diligent and do well but are simply uncomfortable speaking up much in class,” Francis said. “But then I do think speaking up and interacting with colleagues in class is both invaluable for learning and an important part of training for life.”

“So, the compromise I strike is to award full participation points for good attendance and general attentiveness and focus, but significant extra credit if you speak up. I do get that there are ways the participation component … isn’t a naturally level playing field,” Francis said. “My policy is an attempt to encourage everyone to be involved, to stretch at least somewhat beyond one’s comfort zone, so that collectively we learn more effectively together.”

In a world where committee meetings, job interviews and even family gatherings require you to have a voice and use it well, class participation in college seems like the minor leagues. However, classroom discussions should seek to strengthen students to use their voice, not frighten them into silence. 

When Erin Pawlak and Dawn Rosevear, educators in New York City, saw the disadvantaged playing field in their own classrooms, they came up with a “quiet revolution” summed up with three simple words: Think, pair, share. 

A teacher asks a question and gives students time to consider and process their answer. The students then form groups or pairs, where they share their thoughts in a smaller, less intimidating setting. Finally, students share their rehearsed responses with the class. While it’s a seemingly elementary concept, bringing “think, pair, share” into the lecture hall and university classroom not only engages introverts but also encourages collaboration. 

Maybe it’s time we rethink the definition of participation. It means more than merely answering questions. It means, instead, encouraging gradual involvement in John Brown University’s often touted community, one quiet voice at a time.