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Time to Revise Class Participation Approaches: A Call for Change

I’m an introvert.

I get anxious just thinking about speaking in front of a large crowd or making small talk with people I don’t know. It’s why I’m a writer.

But, I’m not alone. Experts estimate that up to 50 percent of U.S. adults identify as introverts.

If we apply those numbers to children, then nearly half of K12 students likely prefer individual, personal contemplation and exploration rather than large group work.

Still, most schools place a premium on extroverted behavior. Class participation grades, for instance, are largely based on how often a student speaks in class, rather than what they say.

It’s time to change how we assess class participation, say introversion experts. Here’s why we should rethink what class participation means and how you can encourage “quiet” students to express themselves.

Changing your mindset

Personalized learning aims to identify each student’s individual needs before developing learning strategies.

We should take the same approach when it comes to evaluating how students participate, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, in an interview with Ideas.Ted.Com.

“In general, teachers should avoid setting social standards for what is normal,” says Cain. “We shouldn’t make problems when they aren’t there by saying, ‘You should be more social.’”

If a student is more comfortable writing an essay about what they’ve learned, or sharing their thoughts with another student, teachers should make sure they get those opportunities, says Cain.

The key is to give students options and diversify their assignments to reflect their needs.

But that may be easier said than done.

Mixing it up

When high school history teacher David Cutler wanted to reach all his students, he dove deep into the research on student participation and introversion, including that of Cain.

Cutler discovered that balancing group-oriented, collaborative work with solo assignments benefits all students, he writes in a recent Edutopia post.

He acknowledges that finding the right balance can be difficult:

“…I gather the trick is knowing your students as individual learners, and that includes knowing when to push and when to ease up. It involves hard work, differentiating instruction and assessment to appeal to a wide range of learners… There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”

For teachers who emphasize speaking up in class, it might be time to explore alternative ways to engage students, says Cutler. That process starts with understanding what makes each student tick.

Next steps

Want to better engage your quieter students? Here are a few steps to encourage different forms of participation:

  1. Understand each student’s demeanor. As an educator, you should know how each of your students interacts with others in class.
  2. Emphasize quality, not just quantity. You probably have students who speak in class every day. That’s great! But don’t forget to acknowledge students who listen and provide well-thought out answers, less often, Cain says.
  3. Remember there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to participation. Make sure students have multiple ways to participate, like essays, one-on-one sessions, small group work, and large class discussions.
  4. Designate quiet time. Every student needs time to reflect on what they’ve learned. Introverts will get a much-needed respite from an overstimulating environment, and extroverts may discover new ways of thinking.
  5. Seek feedback. Ensure students and parents have a way to tell you how you’re doing—through a class survey, a one-on-one meeting, or an online feedback portal.

How do you make your students feel comfortable participating in your classroom? Tell us in the comments.

For other ideas about class participation, read Give students a voice, even if they are afraid to talk.