Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Introversion and Class Participation

By Sherry F. Colb

In my Justia Verdict column for this week, I discuss a fascinating book by Susan Cain,  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and I examine some lessons we might take from the book for a critical evaluation of our existing jury system.  I argue that as currently practiced, the jury system allows extroverts to dominate deliberation and that such dominance undermines the benefits presumed in bringing many people with different perspectives together to make decisions.  Especially relevant to this critique is research regarding conformity and the surprising results of a recent study that looked more closely at why people echo erroneous statements made by their peers.

In this post, I want to consider a different downside of extroversion-dominance:  its toll in the law school classroom.  Like many colleagues, I have from very early in my teaching career awarded "bumps" to student grades for excellent class participation.  What this means is that if a student regularly volunteers helpful ideas and answers to questions in class, then his or her grade on the examination may be increased by one step (B+ to A-, for example) at the end of the semester.  I have always considered this practice to be a reasonable way to reward and take into account the contributions of my students to class discussions and to serve as an incentive for those who might otherwise neglect their work to do the reading conscientiously and come prepared to talk about it.

After reading Quiet, however, I must grapple with some uncertainty about whether this practice is fair or indeed sensible (though I am bound to apply it this semester, as I promised to do so in the syllabus).  One of the things that emerge when I receive my students' exam grades at the end of each term is that there are always some students who perform outstandingly on the examination, even though I may never (or virtually never) have heard those students' voices in class.  My informal conclusion in those cases was that those students might have done just as well without the in-class component of the course, simply by doing the reading and that class-time was therefore of little use to them (on the assumption that silence in class corresponded with mental absence).

My thought now, however, is that the students who performed extremely well despite being quiet throughout the semester might very well have benefited from being in class, both from the lectures and from the contributions of their fellow students.  Their performance on the exam, in other words, might as easily reflect their getting a lot out of class-time notwithstanding their non-participation.  As Cain observes in Quiet, introverts often prefer to listen to what other people are saying and to absorb wisdom without  jumping into the fray.  While extroverts like multi-tasking -- and may therefore enjoy a combination of listening and talking in class -- introverts feel most comfortable dedicating all of their energy to listening and taking in what is happening around them, rather than switching back and forth between volunteering and listening.

Though people sometimes equate introversion with shyness (and the two are correlated), Cain explains that an introvert may not be shy but may simply like to listen and process information, whenever possible, rather than actively make her mark on the classroom proceedings.

One remark that has surfaced regularly in my student evaluations resonates with what I have learned about introverts.  Some students say that they wish I would more regularly call on people whose hands are not raised rather than relying primarily on volunteers as I have done.  I admit that my reliance on volunteers is in part a reflection of my assumption that people whose hands are not raised truly do not want to speak, and my calling on them would thus represent a sort of coercion that I prefer in general to avoid.  Though I typically plan to do a combination of taking volunteers and calling on non-volunteers, my tendency to avoid forcing people to do things they prefer not to do skews me toward volunteers.

Why, I would sometimes wonder as I looked at my evaluations, do people not simply volunteer if they want to speak?  Isn't it perverse to ask me to force them to talk?  I now think that we have two possibilities here, both of which make the advice of my students both comprehensible and wise, in the light of Susan Cain's book.  One possibility is that introverts find it undesirable to raise their hands and thereby announce "I have something to say," and that this feeling is independent of their feeling about actually speaking.  That is, some students may have no anxiety about speaking in front of the class but may have an aversion to singling themselves out by raising a hand.  Such students may well feel liberated by being called upon when their hands are not raised.

Another possibility is that students writing the evaluations are eager to hear the contributions of the introverts in the class -- knowing perhaps better than I do that some quiet students are actually full of valuable insights that they have contributed in private with their friends.  If I rely only on volunteers, I inadvertently keep my students from hearing the insights of the inttroverts, to everyone's detriment.

I suspect that both of these possibilities plays some role in the comments I find on my student evaluations (which are otherwise quite generous, I should add).  I will therefore try -- now with better understanding -- to incorporate more of the quiet students into class discussions.  With this resolution may ultimately come an obligation to stop awarding bumps for volunteering in class.  After all, if everyone -- whether favorably or unfavorably inclined to volunteer -- is equally likely to have  something valuable to contribute, it makes little sense to reward the extroverts over the introverts.  I shall therefore have to rethink my bumping policy, though I welcome thoughts and commentary by readers who either agree or disagree.  My thinking on bumping is now officially a work in progress.


  1. I call on students because - as I tell them on the first day of class - it is like real life: lawyers often get "called on" by clients and supervisors. Also I agree with the blog post that the quiet people often make valuable contributions when called upon.

  2. I can't speak to the value of comments from the quiet. I can tell you that while I appreciated that somewhere around .2 bump to my overall GPA, the participation bonus had no effect on my behavior.

  3. Excellent all around. I'm an introvert, probably (to borrow a word from Romney) a severe introvert.

    I still like to think my Property professor was shocked by my A, though he expressed no sentiment to me later.

    I think there is something to what you and James say about the value of having introverts speak.

    I would add a caveat to James' statement, because many of us see a difference between learning the law (the point of class) and getting "called on" by a client to give information we are already sufficiently versed in (or know where to get and we'll give them a call back). Our preparation for class doesn't always give us the same sense of confidence. As you noted in your article, extroverts don't necessarily need to feel such confidence.

    I'm not saying there's no similarity, but I think it is easily overstated.

    The fact that introverts can make valuable contributions when called upon sometimes indicates an unwillingness to simply regurgitate a correct response even when they apparently know it. It can feel like just trying to look ever so brilliant, not actual learning. While a motivator for many students, it doesn't actually seem to improve a class.

    Introverts can be as prepared or unprepared as any extrovert. So their lack of communication on good days will be overshadowed by any time they are called on unprepared, I would suspect. Extroverts definitely have an easier time of it, being able to compensate on their good days, making them seem (on average) more prepared - especially if a professor doesn't feel the compulsion to call on the more active students on a day they aren't volunteering.

    I suppose the possibility of being called on adds pressure to be prepared, however. And participation helps to create a more engaged atmosphere. I agree with your tentative conclusions, about bringing introverts into discussion in a more organic way and not awarding bumps simply for volunteering.

  4. Anonymous7:06 PM

    I am an introvert student.

    The participation bonus practice seems arbitrary, prejudiced and unfair.

    There are many students in my class that don't read the cases, they just use briefs provided by previous students or notes provided by recently graduated family members (this last one being the most common). Some of the students who shout out the exact information professors want are the worse to converse with about issues outside the classroom because they are used to repeating not thinking.

    I am not saying this is the case with every extroverted student but, just giving an example that just as an introvert might know, an extrovert might not know. They are often trying to impress and get that bonus without necessarily doing the work.

    I want to be clear that I am not speaking against being called upon, I am criticizing the punctuation aspect of the situation: that some students will get a subjective review on how the participate.

    In response to Mr. James, I find it erroneous to compare the classroom experience to the workplace experience. You are in the classroom before a prestigious professor who assumes you know nothing about law. You are there to learn. To take in. To listen. Your sole responsibility is to yourself. Your knowledge.
    On the other hand, in the workplace, they assume you know. Your responsibility is no longer to yourself but, to apply everything you absorbed in the classroom to aid a client.

    In fact, if anything, it would seem disrespectful to start blurting out comments and questions during a meeting and interrupting your boss to participate. ;)

    And to give foundation that introversion doesn't necessarily mean no participation when called on during a meeting:

    In high school, I was the editor of the literary magazine, the president of the drama club, art director of the science magazine, dance choreographer, master of ceremony and the softball's team captain but, I never spoke in class. Maybe I'm an exception but, at least I hope to break the perception that quiet means inadequate or ill-prepared.

  5. I'm also an introverted student who detests the 'participation grade' and being treated as less valuable in the classroom because of my learning style.

    I agree with the student above me - extraverts can be frustrating because they appear to introverts (or me, at least) to take up valuable class time by saying things that are irrelevant to the discussion and asking questions that could be solved by a quick textbook scan or google search at home. But teachers do not seem to judge those students, whereas introverts are judged as being ill-prepared and absent minded.

    I think it's okay to reward students for being active and passionate, but when you notice the kid who doesn't talk in class get amazing grades, perhaps a 'introspection bump' is in order. =)

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