Forced class participation hurts introverted learners


“I will put more pressure on you,” was, verbatim, what one of my tutors told me last year as I was leaving a tutorial group. I was the last student to leave and was packing my stuff away when she asked why I didn’t speak in class very often.

Startled, I mumbled something about feeling shy. Then came the alarmingly phrased, “I will put more pressure on you.”

I am an introvert, and relatively shy. Not extremely so, but enough to make me very aware of when I speak and what I say in my classes (unless it is something I am really, really passionate about). I fully understood my tutor’s intentions and was not offended by their approach; I was simply surprised, and admittedly very nervous about the approach of our next tutorial.

I am very aware of when I speak and what I say

I was reminded of this exchange recently when reading Jessica Lahey’s article in The Atlantic, ‘Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School’. Lahey discusses her decision to grade her students partially on class participation, despite complaints by parents of introverted children.

Instinctively, I felt that familiar pang of injustice on behalf of her shy students. After all, no amount of studying will change your personality, so a shy student of Lahey’s is destined for either eternally capped grades, or better grades earned with discomfort.

No amount of studying will ever change your personality

Nevertheless, I found Lahey’s points compelling: aside from the academic syllabus, she argues that it is her job to “teach [her] students how to succeed in […] a world where most people won’t stop talking”. She also quotes Dr Kendall Hoyt, who persuasively and truthfully states that “you don’t get a pass for your personality type”.

It is heart-warming to read about educators who are actually concerned about preparing kids for something other than exams; call me cynical, but I think that’s rare, and I genuinely appreciate her noble motives. Still, I have my reservations.

I don’t at all disagree with the idea that introverts should be encouraged to speak up for their own benefit, but I think that, particularly in higher education, emphasis on class participation has serious implications.

Educators who insist on participation need to be aware that it comes at a cost. Lahey triumphantly concludes that she “will continue to encourage [her students] to find their voices”. I am less inclined to share her optimism here, partly because I have seen the sad results of such attempts in my own classes.

Participation box-ticking results in a drop in the quality of the conversation

I am currently in a seminar group where everyone’s name must be ticked off on a list, showing that they have spoken at least once in the duration of the seminar – although this tick-sheet does not affect grades. This system has honourable intentions, but results in a distinct drop in the quality of the conversation, as everyone is visibly fidgety, stressfully raising their hands to contribute simply for the sake of contribution. The result? Often a conversation that isn’t a conversation, but a series of unrelated statements of vague relevance.

Tension is felt in the room throughout the session: if I don’t make an immediate contribution, I sit in painful nervousness, worrying about finding an appropriate time to jump in, sometimes to the extent that I struggle to pay attention to  the discussion. I can only imagine the excruciating self-consciousness that students who are even shier, or have severe social anxiety, must experience in the same situation.

Surely there is a more positive way to encourage introverts?

Eagerness to get one’s name ticked is so great that in the past I’ve asked our seminar leader a question, only for them to be interrupted mid-answer by someone volunteering an unrelated statement. Followed by another person’s thoughts on a separate issue. And another’s. My answer never came and yes, I could have emailed the seminar leader after the seminar, but the point still stands: forced group participation, though a great idea in theory, does not yield great results.

While I don’t pretend to possess the solution to this issue, I believe that we need to be more careful before adopting policies that are counter-productive in practice. Surely there are more positive ways to reinforce introverts’ confidence, and help them speak up in their academic lives? I look forward to hearing others’ – especially introverts’ – views on this topic.


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