An Introvert Goes to College: Class Participation

It’s pre-registration time! A period of the semester that is exciting and fear inducing as students excited select their next round of classes…and shudder as they consider the requirements for their new class. The requirement that strikes fear into the heart of many college students is: class participation.

If your reaction to the idea of class participation (talking in class, giving oral presentations, or responding to direct questions) is sweaty palms, shallow breathing, an increased heart rate, or the feeling that you just want to cover yourself up in the back of the classroom and hope the professor doesn’t notice you for three months…welcome to the introvert club! Have no fear, fellow introvert, I have been there and I have survived.

Way back in the late-1990s when I attended college, I had two criteria for selecting classes:

  1. Does the class satisfy requirements for my major?
  2. Do I have to do any presentations?

Okay, so the second question more or less trumped the first. I remember being really interested in an anthropology class…until I saw an oral presentation on the syllabus. I couldn’t drop that class fast enough! Instead, I chose “writing intensive” classes and a couple of large-survey classes when I could (intro to art history anyone?). I sat in the middle of the room to blend in with the crowd, or against the wall hoping to be outside the professor’s peripheral vision.

Society commonly mistakes introverts as being too shy to function properly or as having a social disorder that makes them hate people.


Introversion is actually a personality trait that analytical psychologist Carl Jung first identified (alongside extroversion) and it refers to a person who directs her/his attention inwardly (versus outwardly, like an extrovert). Rather than being shy, people-haters, introverts are quiet, reserved, thoughtful people who can entertain themselves alone for long periods of time. We occupy our time reading, writing, watching movies, etc. Contrary to misconceptions, we actually love socializing …we just do it differently than an extrovert might. Introverts aren’t big on small talk; we like to get into an extended discussion on a topic. So, we prefer to hang out with a few people chatting and really getting to know each other instead of working the room. Our preference for smaller groups means that we’re more likely to spend a night with a handful of close friends rather than a hundred random acquaintances.

You may be thinking: “Yeah, this sounds likes me…but, what does this have to do with class participation in college?”

Introverts think before speaking. We like to process information and form a view before entering the conversation. We also like to observe situations to get a feel for things before jumping in. We listen to other people, see what comments and views do and don’t fly in the group, and notice what types of verbal expression goes over well and what does not. Once we get a sense of the room, we can step in knowing how to navigate things. In other words, introverts are listeners and observers.

The college participation requirement is not set up for the introvert way; it favors extroverts. College classroom culture prefers more immediate verbal responses, which are generally expected to be complete, fully-formed thoughts as opposed to the beginnings of a developing thought.

If that isn’t bad enough, the practice of cold-calling on students is alive and well in the college classroom. Cold-calling means calling on the students (typically those who speak less) and asking them questions that they have to answer on the spot. This was the bane of my college existence (and why I never considered attending law school). I remember one international relations course where the professor cold-called me. I sat there, listened to her question, and totally froze because I needed time to process an answer. All I could get out was: “Whaaaa…?” Everyone (and I mean Every. One.) laughed at me.

One of the first things you should do is meet with your advisor. This is a great place to begin navigating the classroom as introvert. Dr. William J. Buracker (Associate Dean of the Metropolitan School of Professional Studies at the Catholic University in Washington DC) offers the following advice for meeting with your advisor:

  • Discuss your introversion and “ask for help or advice on how to adequately participate in class.” As Buracker points out, advisors may suggest classes and/or professors that would be a good fit for the introverted personality.
  • Meet with your professors during the first week of school. Some professors may view quiet students as unengaged or unable to handle the course material. An early conversation can clarify misperceptions of interest or understanding. Also, ask professor for strategies or alternate assignments that can count toward your class participation grade.
  • Choose classes that meet graduation requirements and that you’re interested in. While you won’t be able to avoid class participation in all cases, don’t let your introversion keep you from graduating in a timely manner. Taking classes on topics that interest you and that you enjoy can offset the anxiety associated with class participation.
  • Take a course in public speaking or rhetoric. While this idea still makes me cringe, it is a really good one. Buracker notes that “almost all jobs require at least some level of public speaking” (think about how you will get a job in the first place!), so learning how to navigate the public speaking waters early will be advantageous. If you’re not ready for this during the first semester, keep it on the table for a later semester.

Ironically, I am now a college professor (yes, one who stands in front of students and talks for over an hour at a time). Because of my college experience as an introvert in the extroverted classroom, I am very aware of the introverts in my classroom.I am also well aware that introversion is still a misunderstood personality trait on the part of professors and introverted students themselves, both of whom may think there is something “abnormal” about introverts.

Even though class participation is a graded requirement on my syllabi, I have found ways to draw introverts into the discussion without trying to change them into extroverts. I post tips for discussion prep on our Blackboard site and I spend part of the first class demystifying class participation. Here are some of my tips:

  • Write down responses to, or questions on, reading assignments as you read. If you’re called on during class: all you have to do is look down and read your notes. If the prof asks for questions, you’ve got one (or two).
  • Try to say one thing, or ask one question, in each course per week. Your comment doesn’t have to be anything Nobel Prize worthy, it just has to be something. If you get used to hearing your voice in class, you may find yourself talking more often.
  • Remember: students who talk a lot, don’t always know a lot. Talking more doesn’t equate with intelligence. Some people just like to talk. Professors don’t want to hear from the same students in every class either. We want to hear a variety of perspectives. Be that other perspective.
  • Direct your comments and questions to your professor, not the other students. I tell my students to forget about what other students might think about their comments: I will always care, so address me not them. I can’t say that this is true for all profs, but it should be.
  • Register for writing intensive classes. Writing is a great way (and a more natural way) for introverts to communicate. Introverts tend to gravitate towards writing, so why not play to your natural personality strength? Adding classes that emphasize writing will give you a balance between how you like to contribute versus how you have to contribute.

When it comes to navigating college courses in general, Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) suggests that students not worry about doing it all: “If it doesn’t work out the way you hope, don’t worry.” Enjoy everything college offers in and outside of the classroom. Don’t let class participation dampen your experience. As far as classes go, Cain advises introverted students to “[t]ake courses you adore. Select professors who mean a lot to you, and give yourself a little push to approach them outside the class.”

While you won’t be familiar with too many profs during your initial year of school, use your first few semesters to find those professors and classes that mean something to you. Talk with other students about classes they’ve taken with certain professors, and ask to see copies of class syllabi to get a sense of class participation requirements and how much class participation counts toward the final grade for a given class or professor.

Although Cain didn’t suggest this herself, I highly recommend reading her book Quiet. It will reinforce the idea that there is nothing wrong with you, that you can thrive as an introvert, and that you have talents that extroverts might envy you for. Asking “Have you read Quiet?” may even help open a conversation with professors who aren’t introverts themselves and who have trouble understanding your personality type.


I’ll explore more topics concerning introverts and college in later posts. Are you an introvert? Would like advice on how to handle something at college? Please contact me or leave your question(s) in the comments section below.

Until next time,


This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy.

An earlier version of this post appeared on


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s