Students Who Don’t Participate in Class Discussions: They Are Not All Introverts

Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As a faculty developer, research showing that both active and engaged learning leads to better long-term learning outcomes (Freeman, et al., 2014) is omnipresent in my mind. Students benefit from working in groups and actively participating in class sessions. Given these benefits, there remains a major challenge in all of this: getting all students to participate in class discussions.  In essentially every class there are those who resist participating, and getting those students to talk remains a challenging aspect of teaching.

For years I incorporated strategies designed to get introverts to participate in class. For the most part I had thought I was successful, if the true measure of success is to get quiet people to talk.  Just recently, however, I realized that not all quiet students are introverts.  I guess I knew this all along, but in conversations with colleagues, we would often talk about the introverts in our classes and how to help them to participate, as if lack of participation was somehow a firm diagnosis of being labeled an introvert.  After all, for years I have differentiated between introverts and extroverts.  In workshops I explain that introverts are individuals who need a bit of time to process before responding, find value in confirming concepts before sharing with a larger group, and find working with others to be exhausting.  Extroverts, on the other hand, I have often joked, are individuals who begin sentences curious how they might end. Extroverts love to talk and often dominate the classroom discussion.  Therefore, getting introverts to better participate was a natural faculty development consideration.

Researchers have looked specifically at this issue of who is not talking in the class and why within a variety of disciplines (e.g., Blau & Barake 2010). I came to really question the idea of why a student might not participate in a class discussion one day when speaking with a faculty member after a faculty development workshop.  This faculty member had been resistant to participate in the workshop.  After noticing his resistance during the workshop I began to search my faculty development toolbox for strategies to get him to talk. I realized at that moment that my goal was not for him to learn or to contribute to advance the discussion; it was for me to get him to talk. It was right then that I thought, “I don’t know why he isn’t participating, so how can I know how best to help him to contribute….if he even wants to contribute.”

This got me thinking about the many reasons students may be resistant to speak in class.  Following are a few for consideration:

  • Introversion: These individuals have a preference for doing things alone, or with a very small group of individuals they know very well. They also prefer to take time to reflect before sharing a position or decision with others. These individuals often interact very well with others, but doing so may well be exhausting. As a result of the ease of interacting in some situations others will misidentify them as extroverts. The point is that it is possible for introverts to interact socially, but it is tiring to do so.
  • Shyness: Shy individuals feel apprehensive and get a sense of awkwardness and lack of comfort around others. A shy student may start the day hoping he won’t have to speak to anyone at school. Introversion is often confused with shyness, but they are very different concepts.
  • English as a Second Language: These individuals may be self-conscious about their accent or fearful that others will not be able to understand what is being said.
  • Cultural Differences: The social norms of conversation vary by greatly due to cultural influences. Many cultures disapprove of a interrupting, speaking over, or contradicting someone else in public. Additionally, cultural practices may inhibit or prohibit an individual from making the nonverbal gestures that allows a westernized person to participate actively in a discussion.  Individuals from some cultures may see the classroom as one in which you respect the professor and therefore would never say anything to question her or his authority.
  • Previous Bad/Embarrassing Experience: A student who is resistant to speak in class may have been embarrassed previously by faculty members or other students. It is often risky to offer a comment or answer a question in front of a large group of peers, and if embarrassed or shamed after speaking out in class, it may be a long time before that person feels comfortable speaking out in class, or even within a group.
  • Peer Pressure/Appearances: For some students, appearing to be interested in the course material may well result in negative social pressure from peers.
  • Cues/Responses from Instructor: As faculty, our subtle head nods, disapproving looks, or turning away from a person who is talking may impact student participation.  Instructors who uses sarcasm in class may get a good response from some students while completely shutting down other students. Within the classroom culture there may also be subtle cues as to whom are expected to speak.  It may well be that students in class are not speaking because they feel marginalized or somehow disrespected.
  • Lack of Knowledge for Response: One reason students will not speak is that they have nothing of value to contribute. This may occur due to a failure to complete the homework assignment, finding the textbook difficult to read, or having no context to relate the material to their own experience.  Alternatively, students may not understand the question as it was asked or may not have clear understanding of the task given to the group.
  • Lack of Interest: A student who simply just isn’t interested in the material is unlikely to contribute to a class discussion or engage enthusiastically in a small group discussion. This is difficult to understand at times as most concepts being taught by faculty members are very exciting to the faculty member.  That said, it may well be the student does not yet know enough about the material to experience that same level of intrigue.
  • Generalized Fear of Failure: Some individuals are simply more concerned with making a mistake in public than are other individuals. I have seen students who will quickly say, “I am not sure if this is what you mean, but….”, proceeding to see if their ideas might be correct.  There are other individuals who will agonize over a decision before making a statement in public.

This list of reasons individuals may not speak up in class is certainly not exhaustive.  Failure to contribute to a discussion or hesitancy to offer answers in class should never be used as a diagnostic conclusion that a person is introverted (Mudore, 2002).  Become aware of your own bias and give consideration to your student population and your classroom culture before making the assumption that those who are silent are introverts. This brings up a critical point. As you pinpoint the barriers that limit student participation you must recognize there is not just one remedy for the situation.

Getting individuals from the categories noted above to speak up will require very different teaching strategies.  For example, requiring each person to make at least one comment will assist a student who secretly wishes to contribute but does fears reprisal from peers. In this case the student could tell her friends, “I hate it that the professor makes us comment or else we lose points in the class.”   For a shy student creating a supportive classroom environment and asking individuals to speak in small groups before responding to the entire class may be much more helpful.  A quiz at the beginning of class may well increase class discussion by encouraging students to come prepared and ready to talk. Finally, the “think-pair-share” is a strategy that will assist introverts (allowing for time to reflect and process) and students from other cultures (better defined expectations for class participation).

The most important consideration regarding all students and speaking out in class is to create a safe classroom that encourages individuals to take risks. Students who fails to participate in a class discussion or seem resistant to respond to a question during class are not all introverts.  There are many reasons a person may be hesitant to speak in class and helping those students to participate first requires identifying why they are not speaking out.

Discussion questions for this blog

  • When it comes to resistance of students to participate in a class discussion or to answer questions posed by a faculty member, what characteristics do you feel are most prevalent in the courses you currently teach or will teach in the near future?
  • Are you an individual who speaks freely in class (or a group setting such as a conference session or faculty meeting) or one who has some hesitancy? If you tend to be hesitant, what structures have you experienced that helped you to feel more comfortable participating? If speaking freely is dependent on the group or situation, explain why you are more hesitant at times to speak out.
  • Identify three different characteristics from the list above and explain what teaching strategies you would employ to help those individuals to be more comfortable participating in class discussions or answering questions.


Balau, I., Barak, A. (2010). How do personality, synchronous media, and discussion topic affect participation? Journal of Educational Technology and Society, 15(2), 12-24.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning in creases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8410–8415.

Mudore, C.F. (2012).  Are you an introvert? Current Health, 2(29), 17-19.

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