Classroom Participation for Introverts

I have always found the concept of “classroom participation” quite irritating, not least because of my introverted nature. Classroom participation has been something I have had to deal with since my Polytechnic days, though it was never really enforced in Singapore. In Australia, marks are given after every session, and you actually get to know how much.

During classes (or tutorials, as we call them here), whenever the tutor (or teacher) asks a question, I will hesitate to reply for I believe in thinking through what I want to say before saying it. By the time a well-structured answer comes to my mind, someone else would have beaten me to it, answering the question, though often not as well as I know I would have.

Over the tutorials, I found that my not being able to think quick enough was costing me plenty of participation marks. I hate losing marks for nothing, especially when I know the answer, and better than most at that. A strategy that I came up with to aid me in countering this was to prepare for the tutorials early on, anticipating questions that may be asked, and memorising key words and phrases that I might blurt out.

The key words and phrases that I memorise are not actually meant to answer the question, but rather to stall for time. I blurt them out first, automatically reciting whatever associated facts I have memorised, and all the while I’m thinking about the actual answer in the background. Believe me, this has worked. I have often managed to beat the more extraverted “say first think later” students to answers, which is a great achievement for someone as opposed to this type of extraverted behaviour as me.

Actually, I had always thought I was one of the few who had this problem, and never actually attributed this to introversion/extraversion before, until I read a book called Type Talk, by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen.

Here’s the excerpt that made me realise that this aversion to “classroom participation” might not be local to me:

Classroom teachers unwittingly pressure Introverted students by announcing that ‘One-third of your grade will be based on classroom participation.’ Prior to such a statement, both Extraverts and Introverts are on a level playing field. But the moment that new realisation hits, the Extraverts have an advantage. When the teacher poses a question to the class, the Introvert responds by thinking, ‘I know the answer. I just need to get it in focus.’ The Extravert, meanwhile, says, ‘I know the answer. Let me start talking until it becomes clear,’ and then raises a hand — or, better yet, blurts something out, perhaps: ‘Well, let me see. I think that the answer to your question is…’ And plop, the answer becomes clear, just in the nick of time. A second Extravert inevitably repeats the answer in his own words — and there’s nothing more repugnant to a true Introvert than to say a third time something that’s already been said correctly once or twice; Introverts are not ones to waste words. (Extraverts, on the other hand, have advanced degrees in redundancy.) So, who do you think gets the better grade for ‘classroom participation’?

It’s important to understand that neither approach to answering a question is better than the other. Both are quite natural. The problem begins when we make judgements about these differing preferences by passing out grades, promotions, or other rewards.

3 thoughts on “Classroom Participation for Introverts

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  1. Hi Donn,

    That was an interesting read. I am currently studying in Australia and I am facing the exact same problems. I find myself losing a lot of participation marks as I am an introvert. It’s especially true when I put in the effort to to prepare for my tutorials, but it turns out I would not answer any of the questions posed even though I knew the answers. What was holding me back is the fear of spouting the incorrect answer or sounding stupid. I have tried shooting answers off the tip of my tongue before in my first year here and resulted in the “stupid” answer outcome whereby the classroom ended up laughing. Once bitten twice shy. I rarely participated ever again, unless the tutor called my name.

    It’s good to know that I found a singaporean sharing the same views as me that coincidentally, I assume, came from the same university and hall (it changed name from currie hall to university hall btw having read your life in perth post).

    1. Hi Ct, yes, I was from UWA “Currie Hall” too! Though I probably would never have thought about it back then, tutorial life with class discussions and “having to speak up” is actually very similar to how my work life plays out now.

      I work as a business/sales analyst, and a large part of my work life revolves around meetings and discussions. Unlike the classroom environment, in work you don’t really have a choice as to whether you want to participate or not. But what I’ve learned is that not everything everybody says has to make sense. It’s a difficult concept to grasp sometimes, but it’s a point you should always remember: what you say doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to seem to make sense.

      As an introvert, I prefer to think before I speak. “Speaking out loud” as some people like to say, is what I guess something extroverts feel at ease at doing, but it doesn’t really come naturally to me. For me, it’s “think, yes, but not out loud”. One neat trick I’ve learned is to paraphrase what somebody has said. It kills multiple birds with one stone: you say something relevant, you show you are listening, and you buy time to think.

      Another trick I’ve learned, something I’ve done since my higher education school days is: prepare, prepare, prepare. When you prepare well for discussions and meetings, you’ll find that just about everything everybody says can be “hooked” or associated with what you had prepared. The opposite is also true: if you don’t prepare, you may find yourself in a discussion where everything just goes over your head.

      I find that in every meeting I prepare for, my introversion and aversion to speaking up goes away. In meetings I’m ill-prepared (often agenda-less meetings — *ugh* — or those whose reason for being I don’t have a clue about) I find I always slip into that “don’t talk to me” mindset.

      Good luck to your schooling life. Enjoy it while it lasts!


      1. Thanks for your advice. I will attempt to step out of my boundaries the next few tutorials. It’s brutally true that about what you said on having no choice but to participate at work. Therefore I have to solve this problem before it affects my future job prospects. On a side note, I still find the UWA participation assessment a very flawed way of grading students.

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