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.