Active Learning for Introverts


February 07, 2019

by Esther Jordan
Director, Faculty Success and Associate Professor of Political Science

For those of us who are introverts most of the time, active learning in the form of group work and discussion can lead us to shut down and choose to teach ourselves the content later, in quiet solitude. But this takes metacognitive skill that many students have yet to develop.

I recently led a CETL book club on Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2012). I did so on the recommendation of Lisa Kastello, my colleague in the College of Theater and Arts at Kennesaw State University (KSU). When she made the recommendation, she noted that the book resonated with her as an artist, because it affirmed the value of taking the time to listen, observe, and process before creating art. She identifies as an introvert[i] (even though to me she appears very social and outgoing) and finds that she cannot create without quiet time and space.

This idea is not new, but it stuck with me. The KSU Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, where I am an Associate Director, and other centers for teaching and learning throughout the world encourage faculty to employ active learning techniques in their teaching, based on evidence of its efficacy (see for example, Bonwell and Eison, 1991). So many faculty members interpret active learning to be group work, loud work, and/or quick-on-the-spot/real-time response activities that some students resent. I have employed these kinds of techniques with a great deal of success for many years. But in several semesters, I had a student or two write scathing remarks in their end of term student evaluations about how much they hated the active learning approach. In most semesters, it seems that about one third to half of my students are reluctant participants. I carry on, because the research indicates that it works, that students learn more even if they don’t always like the process. (Bonwell and Eison, 1991; Lederman, 2018)

However, I have to admit that when I participate in similar activities in professional development workshops or at conferences, I spend much of the time overcome by frustration. I feel discomfort in being forced to think quickly. I feel irritation at those one or two colleagues who either talk over everyone in the room or in their small groups, or who dominate the conversation. Mostly, I resent not having the time and space to think deeply enough to really learn. It is no wonder some of my students feel the same way. 

According to Cain’s self-assessment instrument, I am an introvert on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. I am certain that many of my students are as well. Just like with learning styles (Steiner and Foote, 2017) or conflict modes (Kilmann and Thomas, 1974) we may exhibit/prefer introversion over extroversion more in some contexts than others. For those of us who are introverts most of the time, active learning in the form of group work and discussion can lead us to shut down and choose to teach ourselves the content later, in quiet solitude. But this takes metacognitive skill that many students have yet to develop.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted a study that took another look at the research on active learning and found that faculty who employ active learning techniques in their teaching experience great variation in student ratings, with those who use it moderately receiving higher ratings than those who use it almost exclusively (Lederman, 2018). This finding is intuitive to me, as an educational developer who facilitates faculty workshops and as a political scientist who teaches Comparative Politics courses with active learning techniques. After all, facilitating active learning takes skill and that skill must be honed over time. I am continually working to develop my active learning facilitation skills. When it is done well, the instructor creates sufficient time and space for the students to think and work individually before sharing ideas with a small group of peers or with the rest of the class. The instructor also follows up with a brief lecture or activity that helps students identify what the most important take-aways are from the exercise and guides students to organize what they learned into a structured knowledge network (Ambrose et al, 2010). Time constraints and reluctant participants can make this even more challenging, but not insurmountably so. I have found the following three principles to be very helpful in this regard.

First, active learning does not need to be loud and it does not need to be in groups. It can be both, but probably should not be all the time. In fact, I prefer Elizabeth Barkley’s notion of active learning, “Active learning means that the mind is actively engaged. Its defining characteristics are that students are dynamic participants in their learning and that they are reflecting on and monitoring both the processes and the results of their learning.” (p.17) She also notes, “This definition of active learning, where students make information or a concept their own by connecting it to their existing knowledge and experience, is critical to student engagement.” (p.17) While collaborative learning is a recognized high impact practice (Kuh, 2008), it is not a necessary condition for making these critical connections in one’s own thinking.

Second, active learning as an opportunity to engage the mind, reflect, monitor learning, and make connections may at times be more effective in silence. I am not sure if this is just the case for “introverts,” or if it is so for the entire spectrum. But, I do know that when I built a lot more time for strategic, directed, individual reflection and connection-making into my class last spring, I found that many more of my students actively engaged in and seemed to appreciate the in-class work, and my teaching evaluations were much better than when my class focused more on guided discussion and group work.

Third, and perhaps most essential, it is important to be deliberate in efforts to generate participation. This includes focusing and streamlining participation moments – offering perhaps fewer, but more carefully designed opportunities for participation. It includes asking a question, then pausing for several seconds, repeating the question or projecting it overhead, and giving the entire class time to think and articulate an answer in writing, before following up with paired, small group or whole group discussion – or with a mini-lecture. Otherwise, students can miss the instructor’s question entirely (and faculty often mistakenly assume most of the students just don’t want to engage or don’t know the answer, when this is the case). Students’ attention needs to be directed to the question, they need time to think and formulate a response. 

Cain argues that the power of introverts lies in their ability to listen and reflect before responding. Perhaps likewise the power of teaching is greatest when we give students the opportunity to consider the course content (be it through listening, reading, observing or experiencing it), guide them in strategic-connection-making reflection, and then provide them with immediate feedback (even if it is to the class as a whole), before we move on to the next idea. We know this is how learning works (Ambrose, 2010). We just have to build in time and plan class meetings to make it so.


American Association of Psychology. (n.d.) Retreived from   

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.S., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Eysenck, H. J. (1947). Dimensions of Personality. London: Methuen. 

Henderson, C, Khan, R. & Dancy, M. (2018). Will my student evaluations decrease if I adopt an active learning instructional strategy? American Journal of Physics. 68 (934).

Jung, C. G. (1921) Psychologische Typen, Rascher Verlag, Zurich – translation H.G. Baynes, 1923. New York: Routledge.

Kuh, G. (2008) High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.  Retrieved from

Lederman, D. (September 12, 2018). Will Trying New Teaching Techniques Tank My Evaluations? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from 

Stiener, H. and Foote, S. (May 15, 2017). Using Metacognition to Reframe our Thinking about Learning Styles. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Stewart, L. (September 18, 2018) It’s Complicated: Re-visioning Discomfort in the Classroom. Retrieved from

Thomas, K. W., & Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Tuxedo, NY: Xicom.

[i] According to the American Psychology Association Dictionary of Psychology, introversion-extroversion is defined as, “the range, or continuum, of self-orientation from introversion, characterized by inward and self-directed concerns and behaviors, to extraversion, characterized by outward and social-directed concerns and behaviors. See also Eysenck’s dimensions; five-factor personality model. [concept originated by Carl Jung for the study of personality types].”

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