Archive | August, 2013

Why Don’t You Just Speak Up? Engagement & Discussion Ideas from an Introverted Teacher

19 Aug Image is of a square cardboard box with the word "suggestion" written on the two visible sides.

by Kristin L. Fitzsimmons (MFA, UMinn)


When undergraduates enter university classrooms, they’re coming from various educational backgrounds and experiences. They will all have different expectations of what or who an instructor should be, just as you might have a certain idea of the ideal student. That idealized student probably speaks up when we ask a question, offers insightful comments, and prepares for class at home. Students might expect that as ideal instructors we always have the answers and never feel awkward or unconfident. For most of us, neither ideal is something we experience on a daily basis. When thinking about classroom engagement – participation and discussion, it’s hard to balance how much a teacher leans on her students and how much they lean on her. Too much weight on either side can throw everything off balance, especially when your class, like most classes, is a mixture of talkers and listeners.

For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll focus on introversion in the way it affects our students, how to effectively work as a teacher who considers herself an introvert (seriously, there are a lot of us), and illustrate ways to have a successful classroom engagement no matter how many talkers or non-talkers are in attendance.

At the University of Minnesota, I have worked with students from all disciplines, primarily in undergraduate creative writing classrooms. Whatever the discipline or course, there is also always a mixture of introverts and extroverts when it comes to discussion and participation. With a lot of experimentation, I’ve been able to find a few activities that work well for integrating all students in your classroom:

  • Preparation
    Spontaneous discussion is difficult for some students, so prepare them with an activity. This could take the form of freewriting – generative and informal writing – in response to a prompt or question, or asking them to comment on a part of the reading that struck them. While this won’t calm students’ trepidation 100% of the time, you will have prepared all students to be called on, as you have given everyone time to think and write.
  • Pairwork
    This is the greatest thing in the history of teaching a mixed class of introverts and extroverts. Not only does it give us as teachers a chance to take a breather, or walk around and listen/talk to pairs of students, it works. Students who won’t ever talk in the big group will speak in pairs, and those who always talk in full class discussions will be in a position to listen. You can do almost any activity in pairs: writing, problem solving, brainstorming, concept testing…
  • Visual Aids 
    In addition to helping students refer back to what you or other students said, writing on the board gives you something physical to do. I get anxious when I’m just standing in front people, so having a physical task is helpful. If you have bad handwriting or don’t like to write on the board, you can use type on a computer connected to a projector or get a student volunteer to do it. It still takes some eyes off of us at the front of the room.  The visual prompt also offers students a way to cue discussion back to the task at hand.
  • A Silent Activity
    A mentor once told me that it’s possible to cultivate silence in classrooms, so that those moments are reflective, instead of awkward. Silent activities are also solitary – a moment to write or simply to ponder a question and take down notes. I recommend teachers setting a timer in order to also participate completing the silent activity. During longer class periods, silent moments are times when the pressure to speak up is completely removed.
  • Physical Activity
    Getting people up and moving can help alleviate some anxiety. Personally, I have a much better energy when I’m standing or moving around then when I’m sitting. Here is one example with multiple possibilities: Tape the numbers 1-4 to the 4 corners of your classroom. If you’re classroom is another shape, you are probably already more free-spirited than me and can adjust accordingly. Then, ask your class multiple choice questions, assigning one answer to each corner.  This basic plan can be adjusted for other types of classes, and even made into a low-stakes quiz or test preparation.  For example:

    • A creative writing example is this one: Ask “In an election, who does your main character vote for? 1) Republican 2) Democrat 3)Independent 4) Doesn’t Vote. Students then have to physically move to a corner. It’s up to you if you want to ask them further questions about their choices.
    • A science lab course example might be to predict which of four possible results will be the outcome of an upcoming experiment.
    • A discussion or recitation section, whatever the discipline, might ask students to go to one of the corners to claim a problem that the assembled group will solve or analyze and explain.


As with any classroom, experiment with what works for you and your mix of students. If you find that you’ve been unable to draw a particular student out of his or her shell, send them an email or walk down the hallway with the student after class to discover ways you can encourage them to participate in class. Ask follow up questions based on comment they have made.  Note that one of those overheard comments would be great for the entire class to hear next time.  Ask them if there are strategies that you can use to help them to share ideas in class.

If I had to give one piece of advice to offer to other teachers who are bothered or worried about students who don’t speak up in class, it would be this: Don’t let it fester. If you are feeling negative about regularly quiet students, nothing good will come of sitting with those thoughts. Better to openly communicate with students, let them know why you value discussion as part of learning, and offer them an opportunity to talk about ways they can engage in class discussions. Most likely you can find a solution that works for you both.

For Further Information

The Space We Need: Experiences of an Introvert.  A video created by Brenda Knowles, produced by Soul Biographies, and filmed in Medina, Minnesota.

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