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How to Engage Shy Students in the Classroom

Introverts have it rough. Whether it’s in a small social setting, a meeting, a party, or the classroom, an introvert is less likely to proactively engage in conversations. They like to listen, think, and consider where the conversation is going – for them, listening and watching is their way of engaging in the classroom experience. They may speak up eventually, but it might be after someone else has already shared a similar insight or opinion. Oftentimes, too, introverts can be shy and socially timid, preferring to stay in the back because of some sort of anxiety or fear of speaking in public.

I’m one of them. I find it hard to walk into a social situation or meeting and meet people, make small talk, and create friendships. I prefer to observe, consider what others are saying, and develop my own thoughts and opinions based on the conversation. And I’d rather sit in the background and observe rather than saying something that might be too controversial, inappropriate, or just plain wrong.

In the classroom, an introvert might have a particularly difficult time competing with all the extroverts who raise their hand, shout out answers, and monopolize the conversation. This often means the professor needs to take special steps to ensure introverts and shy students have an opportunity to be an active part of the classroom experience. Calling on someone who is shy by nature might appear to be picking on people just to catch someone who is unprepared or disinterested in the conversation at hand.  Instead, by framing the engagement of shy students in a positive manner, you create an opportunity for students to shine, to share their thoughts in a non-judgmental and non-confrontational manner, and reinforce – for all students – the importance of respecting opinions and engaging in an open and positive environment.

To get started in engaging shy students, try these three things:

  1. Use an Information Sheet

On the first day of class, have each student fill out an information sheet with:

  • Their name, major, and career goals.
  • Have them share any information on and current/past employment such as summer jobs, internships, and coops.
  • And have them share an interesting fact about themselves – it could be anything from “I’ve been to all 50 states” to “I have a twin brother” to “I hate mushrooms” – anything that might spark some sort of conversation.

Use these Information Sheets throughout the semester to bring some personal interest in to the classroom. For example, if you’re talking about International Marketing, have the student who has “been to 5 different countries” talk about their experiences. You’ll find that even the shy students will take pleasure in talking about something interesting about themselves because it gives them a chance to take the spotlight in front of their classmates.

  1. Pick up on body language

Often, shy students may be engaged but afraid to raise their hand, but it’s easy to see they might have something to say. If another student is talking, you might say “John, I see you are nodding your head in agreement with what Sarah said” and have them elaborate, or “Theresa, I saw you smile when Jim talked about X.” This gives the shy student permission to say something they might not initially offer up, and it often makes them feel good that you’ve noticed their reaction.

  1. Pull them out of their shell

If a student is shy, they may harbor inner feelings of frustration that they don’t feel confident speaking up. They may even express that to you personally after class or during office hours. In this case there’s a couple of things you can do:

  • If you notice this type of behavior, talk to them outside of class and let them know you understand how they must feel.
  • You might suggest that they raise their hand early in class with something small to say, or you may prepare them to be called on during a discussion so they won’t be surprised.

You’ll probably find that they will enjoy this type of arrangement, which gives them the chance to participate and you the chance to recognize their engagement.

Shy students can often have some of the best insights and opinions. Use these tips to engage them in the classroom, and you just may find they become more actively engaged.

About the Author

Ric Sweeney is an Associate Professor in the Marketing Department at the University of Cincinnati's Carl H. Lindner College of Business, specializing in Principles of Marketing, Advertising, Services Marketing, Branding, and Promotions. A passionate educator, Ric serves as faculty advisor for the UC AMA, CATALYST Marketing, and Project Heal, and is a faculty fellow for the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. He has also been a recipient of numerous awards for inspiring the next generation of great marketers, including the Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Barbour Award for Faculty/Student Relations, two of the University’s top awards for excellence. Ric has been a devoted volunteer for the American Marketing Association since 1996, serving locally as a Cincinnati Chapter Board Member and President. From there, he took his AMA volunteering to the national organization. Ric elevated his volunteering for the AMA to its highest level, serving as a Member of the Board of Directors and as the Chairman of the Board. Ric's impact on marketing, just within his AMA volunteering alone, is reflected in the fact that the AMA's annual national Volunteer of the Year award has his name attached to the honor. In 2018, Ric was named a “Cincinnati Marketing Legend” by the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

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