On teaching introverts (and introverts teaching) by Carike Claassen

As a young lecturer, I really enjoy experimenting with different teaching styles. I’m constantly trying to improve on the previous semester’s teaching and trying to see if it is possible to accommodate a wide variety of learning styles in my classroom. In particular, though, I wonder a lot about how we treat introverted students in the higher education system. I was reminded of this issue again when I recently read Bruce Macfarlane’s piece on shy students in the Times Higher Education. The emphasis in higher education these days is very much on group work, which can be painful for socially awkward or just plain introverted students. Is there really no place for introverts in the academy?

I relate to this question because, firstly, if we could place introversion/extroversion on a spectrum between the lady with 9 cats who only leaves the house to buy chocolate, and the social butterfly who’s out at a party every night, I’m definitely on the cat lady side of things (except for being a dog-person, not cats). So I have lots of empathy for the quiet student sitting in a corner somewhere while the rest of the class is engaged in some group activity, because frankly, I’d rather be reading, too.

Secondly, I find the emphasis on groupwork baffling since I had thought that universities were supposed to be bastions of critical, independent thought. To my mind, critical, independent thinking is just not something that can happen in a group setup.

Susan Cain shares these concerns in her book, Quiet. She shows that innovative, deep thinking can only come from solitude. It is an idea which is echoed by Malcolm Gladwell, who explains the importance of “focused practice” in his book Outliers. The key difference between people who truly excel at their work and those that are only average, is that the truly excellent spend many hours alone, honing their craft. This is because working alone gives the opportunity to focus on strengthening your specific weak spot, which is just not possible in a group setup where the distractions are too numerous.

Cain also talks about something she calls the “New Groupthink”. Groups tend to be dominated by the most outgoing, charismatic member of the group, and group members soon mimic the opinion of that leader, so if you’re looking for innovative ideas, you’re not going to find them in group work.

Cain’s research corroborates my own teaching experience – I have, in the past, tried to incorporate more group work into my teaching, only to find that:

  • Groups were not coming up with original insights – instead what happened was that the most basic answer to a question/problem was quickly parroted, so that the work could be disposed with in order to get down to the more crucial business of socializing.
  • Free riding continued rampantly, even though mechanisms were built in to try and avoid this.
  • Some students cannot think independently at all anymore – I have had students tell me that they cannot come up with answers to questions unless they have had the opportunity to discuss it in a group. Which is worrying, considering the fact that, no matter how much your future boss will expect you to be able to work with others, you will still be appointed in a position and with job requirements for which you – alone – will be uniquely responsible.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t be encouraged to work together, or that social skills aren’t important, because they are. The key, I think, is to understand that teaching university students requires a more nuanced approach than simply “either traditional lectures” or “total interactive group work.” I am now trying to structure my classes in a way which allows for a better mix of interaction/solitary work:

  • Discussion pieces for classwork are handed out beforehand, so that students who prefer to work alone have the time to quietly read through the work, while those that are more vocal have the opportunity to voice their opinions during discussion time.
  • Students are encouraged to do either/or: A question is set, to which they must provide an answer, and they are given an option: “If you’d like to work with a buddy/buddies, that’s fine. If you want to work alone, that’s fine, too, but at the end of these 10 minutes, you must have answered this question.”
  • Instead of putting students in large groups, pair work is encouraged.

I think there is still plenty of work to be done. Sure, it is difficult to try to cater for different learning styles especially when classes are large. But I fear that educators, myself included, often fall into the trap that so many of us do: Putting people (in this case, students) in neatly labeled boxes and only dealing with them on the basis of what we perceive as “normal”.


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