“Collaborative learning” fails to collaborate with introverts

“Collaborative learning” fails to collaborate with introverts (credit: Louise Zhou/) “Collaborative learning” fails to collaborate with introverts (credit: Louise Zhou/)
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When you walk into a classroom today, you are just as likely to find students engaged in a class discussion or group project as listening to a lecture — if not more so. With increased emphasis on “collaborative learning” and “flipped classrooms,” many schools today are praised for being more dynamic, interesting, and educationally beneficial than traditional schools. Even at colleges, seminars are rapidly becoming more popular than traditional lecture-style classes.

But some shyer, more introverted students suffer perpetually over participation grades, and sometimes no amount of pleading and punishment can encourage them to speak up. Perhaps educators need to step back and examine the reason behind these students’ lack of contribution.

It is true that some students thrive in social situations, learning best when discussing their ideas out loud with others. However, there are some students who process information most efficiently on their own, and even those whose fear of speaking aloud can have a crippling effect on their education. The true danger of this “one size fits all” model for education is that some students’ needs will be continually overlooked in favor of the majority.

The primary argument for collaborative learning at the expense of introverts' comfort is that all students, even the quiet ones, need to be prepared for “real world” situations that will arise in their professional lives. This argument may well be grounded. Even if the students manage to find a job where they don’t have to interact with others, it is almost guaranteed that they will be forced to speak up during the interview process.

Rather than punishing students for their fears, there must be a gentler way to ease them into feeling comfortable with sharing their opinions out loud. Maybe instructors can start out by having students speak in small groups before they graduate to larger full class discussions. Maybe discussion questions can be given to the class in advance so that students will have time to plan their answers more thoroughly.

Also, teachers and schools should keep in mind that there are many other ways these students might participate. Maybe a student takes careful notes throughout a discussion so they can think about the ideas on their own. Maybe the student thrives during one-on-one discussions, or turns in well-written responses to prompts based on the material.

In other words, just because a student is silent doesn’t mean they are not actively engaging in the learning process. Educators shouldn’t be so quick to write off quiet students as lazy or uninterested.

By definition, introverts need quiet time to process information and recharge — something being constantly stimulated by group activity will not grant them. In the context of group discussions, some introverts may contribute as much as any extroverted student; the underlying difference is that this is not the best way for them to learn.

While American schools are increasing emphasis on "collective" learning, other cultures continue to emphasize individual, instruction-based learning. International students at universities may therefore be at a disadvantage.

All students are different, and as such, they respond in different ways to various teaching methods. Some students are frightened by group discussions, some are drained by one-on-one interaction in smaller groups, and others may be easily distracted or have difficulty focusing during independent reading or studying time.

Formal education should meet in the middle of all these students’ needs. There is a fine line that educators must walk between genuinely preparing students for the future and making them afraid to come to class.