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Professors tailor classroom discussions for introverted students

One step. That is all that separates Tayler Klimek from the inner ring of desks — the fishbowl — where small-group discussion is taking place in a large-group setting.

It might as well be a mile.

In fishbowl discussions, only people in the middle ring of desks can talk. Everyone else on the outside cannot add to the discussion, even if they only have something small to say, Klimek said.

“You have to pass that barrier and walk into the circle,” said Klimek, a senior who considers herself introverted. “I don’t know if it is a turn of laziness or not, but you just don’t want to take that extra step to go into the fishbowl.”

While Klimek is not a fan of the fishbowl discussion, this method of participation is one way that professors have tried to incorporate various learning and processing methods into classrooms. From Moodle forums to writing down ideas to discussion in large group discussion, some professors are addressing differences in communication.

Not every person learns the same way, nor do all students speak up in the same instances as their peers. Not everybody wants to raise their hand and participate in that way. Johnny Wagner addresses this very issue in a letter to the editor that was published in The Concordian Oct. 8, 2015.

“Imagine, if you will, a perfect student. This precocious individual spends all of his or her free time studying, has impeccable attendance, and always scores highly on tests,” Wagner wrote. “Now, visualize said student logging on to the internet to check grades and being devastated to find that … he or she has a B marring the gradebook. Why? The student’s grade was lowered simply because the student rarely speaks in class. … Is the sentence a just punishment for the crime?”

Wagner said that no matter the reasoning, no student should be forced to participate in class beyond their comfort zone.

Not everybody is good at just jumping in there, ahead of everybody else and participating, said Aileen Buslig, professor and chair of communication studies, and an introvert.

In her classes, Buslig often has students write down responses to discussion questions prior to discussing them. The responses serve as a way to keep attendance and can be used for two other purposes.

First, it is a means to keep everyone engaged. Secondly, it gives people who may feel less bold or less extroverted the time to think about the question and think about their answers, so that they will then feel more comfortable speaking their ideas. Buslig remembers having a participation grade when she was in school.

“I was extremely shy — I mean my heart beats hard whenever I think about talking in front of people,” Buslig said. “I couldn’t bring myself to say something in class most of the time. The pressure that I felt when I just couldn’t do it and to know that that impacted my grade …  and to accept that didn’t seem right.”

Jonathan Steinwand, a professor of English, tries to be deliberate in his classes about talking about different forms of participation as many of his courses are discussion based.

In some, he employs the fishbowl in hopes that students will be more comfortable speaking in the small group setting. The fishbowl itself physically calls attention to silence and speaking. For those who speak more readily, they cannot just jump into the conversation, they have to physically move into it.

“It’s not too different from having to raise your hand, but it is a little bit — one step more than that,” Steinwand said.

He surmounts that this levels discussion and allows for more voices to be heard, because, in his opinion, discussion is the best way to learn about and get excited about literature. Lecturing about literature, he said, would be too boring.

In upper level classes, Steinwand is less directive about participation expectations, while in introductory literature classes he calls attention to discussion and the ways it can vary, ideas that are part and parcel of communication classes. One example is the idea of interpreting silence and pause perception.

Pause perception is the amount of time and silence one feels comfortable having. According to Steinwand, research has shown that people have different pause perceptions. If one has a longer pause perception, they tend to be a mental processor who processes internally rather than aloud. If one has shorter pause perception, they tend to process orally.

“I talk about the extremes — I learned from a kindergartener teacher, a friend of mine who talked about shouter-outers as those who had short pause perceptions. I was intrigued by that idea and said that we need a term that’s equally as pejorative for the other extreme,” Steinwand said. “So I came up with the selfish sponge, being one myself.”  

Extroverts and shouter-outers, like sophomore Andie Palagi, tend to have shorter pause perceptions than introverts.

“I get uncomfortable when a professor asks a question and the students just stare blankly back,” Palagi said. “It just makes me feel very sad for the professor almost, so if I’m in that situation, I’ll talk in hopes that other students will talk as well.”

Palagi’s ideal form of participation would be a debate, but she says that is because she has been in speech and debate for six years. In those instances, participation is more student-involved and the professor acts more as a moderator who allows the students to apply what they have learned in textbooks.

While outgoing now, when Palagi started high school, she was shy and did not talk much since she had a speech impediment when she was younger. Because of the impediment, she had to attend speech therapy for six years, after which she joined speech and debate.

“That was a weird switch, but in debate in high school, I had to become informed about a lot more topics, see both sides of the issues and formulate my own opinions about things,” Palagi said. “It was helpful in the fact that what I do know about I get passionate about.”

Palagi now feels like she could talk for several minutes about certain current events and controversial ideas, including things she learns about in class. But not all students feel this way, and professors like Buslig recognize that.

“There are other ways to know that people are engaging … very smart students are truly engaging. You can see their wheels turning in their head, and you can see it in the way that they write their papers, and you can see it in how well they perform on tests,” Buslig said. “But they won’t necessarily say something in class if they have to compete with other people.”

This is why she has students write down responses.

“You’d be amazed at the depth of thought that goes into the lesson or thinking about the questions that you might ask, and so to recognize that there are different ways to get people to engage and to participate and it doesn’t always have to verbal,” Buslig said.

If it is always verbal, some students may dominate the discussion. In Global Studies 117 with Leila Zakhirova, Palagi often spoke up because, as a global studies major, she became very excited about much of the subject matter. Zakhirova suggested that she let others speak more.

“I realized how little I know, which is humbling because other people participate in the discussions and I learn from them as well. So I’ve learned to stay quiet sometimes, because you can learn a lot from other people,” Palagi said.

As a student, Steinwand had a very long pause perception to the extent that he was not participating in discussions in graduate school. In being on the East Coast, the culture there was very different: if you did not speak up, people moved on without you. Here, with Minnesota nice culture, there is the assumption that people are valuable even if they do not speak up and show that they are, Steinwand said.

“So I try to introduce students to that and suggest that we all have something to learn from different styles because oral processors can do certain things but if the class is dominated by oral processors, there is a type of thinking that doesn’t always get represented in the discussion,” Steinwand said. “So finding a way to work as a class, as a team, as a group to make room for different types of processing information. It’s best for the learning of everybody.”

Buslig bridges differences in learning styles by keeping classes varied. Occasionally, she introduces a self evaluation survey to see what kind of decision-making styles her students have. Then those with the same styles group up and talk about advantages and disadvantages to that specific style, and then they share it with the whole class.

“I think that the variety allows for different modes of learning to occur and some students will be more drawn to certain styles than others, and in that way I’m reaching more people too.”

A few things that selfish sponges can do is talk to peers about discussion topics outside of class so that they are more confident with their ideas. People can also prepare something to say or develop little phrases that buy them time in conversations while they collect their thoughts, Steinwand said.

Shouter-outers can also invite others into the conversation and work to develop listening skills and restraint, while not squelching their own voice, Steinwand said.  

“I was not confident in my voice so I … challenge students to gain confidence in their own voices in discussion because that is really valuable not just in classes but in meetings and in teams that you’ll be on, in politics,” Steinwand said. “There’s all kinds of places where you have something that you care about and need to represent your position and the classroom is an excellent place to practice that.”

For Palagi, participation grades encourage people to talk more and that style of teaching is a lot more useful to learning than lectures.

“Communication skills are one of the most sought-after skills for college graduates,” Palagi said. “So I think, rather than needing to major in communication to get those skills, having participation grading and having students be more comfortable expressing their thoughts or being involved in speech where students just love the sound of their own voice is one of the ways to actually grow those skills.”

When Klimek began college, she was more introverted than she is today. Joining a percussion ensemble, along with other musical groups, really helped her to become more comfortable with sharing her ideas and expressing her personality.

Klimek believes that participation could be anything from talking in discussion to just being present in class. For her, participation grades do not always feel fair because there are those obvious people who are more extroverted and always share what they are thinking and there are people who just aren’t that way.

Klimek finds it easier to talk in classes where she is more knowledgeable or where she is more comfortable with her peers, but it has only been in the past year that she has really started becoming more comfortable speaking her mind.

“I don’t feel like I always word things the right way and I’m always thinking about how I am saying something more than what I am saying so it has been a journey,” Klimek said.

But the journey to finding one’s voice is necessary. Audrey Gunn wrote a letter to the editor in response to Wagner, arguing the value of participation grades.

“Nobody has the inherent right to always feel comfortable. It is the challenges we face that allow us to grow as humans. To argue that these challenges should be removed from college (the very place meant to allow personal development and growth) is a very dangerous idea. I should realize this better than anyone; I came to college as one of the shyest people I know, and to a great extent, I still have this shyness,” Gunn wrote. “However, without being forced to participate in class discussions, I would never have developed the basic communication skills that I have today.”

Gunn said in the letter that she cannot think of a single job that does not require communication skills. Concordia must prepare students for the world beyond college and that world does not cater to introversion.

“[The world is] not some utopian fantasy where people are never made to feel uncomfortable or to face their anxieties,” Gunn wrote. “It would be ridiculous to allow a student to not write a paper just because it creates a great deal of anxiety for them, and it is similarly ridiculous to allow a student to be a selfish sponge and never contribute to class discussions because it causes anxiety.”

Yet if students do not volunteer to speak, the only option left, if one believes they must speak, is to call on them, a process which Buslig said professors sometimes use to hear different voices in discussion.

“I even remember as a student feeling like I was put on the spot and pressure to respond when somebody called on me and when you are not ready for that, that’s hard,” Buslig said.

If a student is unsure or insecure about responding, they will not do so, according to Buslig. But if they do venture out on that metaphorical limb and receive a positive response, it increases confidence and puts them on a path to find their voice.  

“I can empathize, really, with what the student is going through, and I don’t want to devalue that, and I want to encourage them to recognize that they are thinking about things and … have good things to say,” Buslig said. “Some of the things that were most helpful to me is when people said, “That was smart. You should say something more often.”

Just a few weeks ago, Klimek went into a job interview and she was able to answer everything spot on and she got the job. Speaking in class and the practice of speaking in college prepares one to learn how to think and talk and write, Klimek said.

“I definitely don’t think a class should be without discussion,” Klimek said. “It’s just hard finding a balance, for introverts especially.”

For Buslig, as an adult, she realized that finding one’s voice is more important than she realized when she was younger.

“I was always a very good student,” Buslig said. “My parents raised me that all you have to do is do good work, and … you’ll be recognized for that. I’m still not good about putting myself out there, but I realize how much more you have to be your own advocate in some ways. The world has just become that much more oriented towards getting your message out.”

Part of finding one’s voice is practice, according to Steinwand, but some of it is also developmental psychology, for as people age, they gain experience that gives them more confidence and lets them more comfortable with their voice.

“But it seems to me that students who take ownership of their participation and become conscious of the different roles that play in this, navigate that aspect better than those who come to realize it later on,” Steinwand said.

Steinwand tries to make discussion a discussion topic, because the point of a discussion class is to learn to find your voice through sharing your perspective and getting feedback on your thoughts. That is what he asks students like Klimek to do: to claim their voice.


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