Earlier this month, Melissa Thomas-Hunt and I convened another session in our faculty series on case teaching.  This was focused on “Getting the Best out of the Quiet Student.”  Here’s a sketch of what we discussed. 


At the outset, we took a poll of the colleagues gathered in the room:

What is the breadth of student participation in your course on any given day?  [Pretty uneven.  A few students talk readily; the majority of students contribute a little; a few students are silent.]

Who would like to see more class participation? [Virtually all hands went up.]

Among LPs, UPs, and Fs, how significant to the result was the contribution of class participation? [General agreement: pretty significant.]

Are you an introvert? [Some faculty members had taken the Myers-Briggs personality inventory test and rated as introverts.  Such a result is typical for academicians.]

Some people gain energy from interaction with other people—these are called extroverts.  On the other hand, people who turn inward for energy are introverts.  In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the important contributions that a quiet person makes.  And she reserves some trenchant comments for higher education in general and business schools in particular.  Her TED talk on YouTube, “The Power of Introverts,” gives a sampling. 


Why “quiet?”


Students can be quiet for many reasons.  It is a mistake to assume that the quiet student is disinterested or unprepared for class.  Illness or lack of sleep would render anyone less engaged in classroom discussion.  Cultural background may explain some quiet students: certain cultures instill great deference to the teacher and discourage the student from questioning or inserting personal opinions in class.  Or maybe the school or section has a strong in-group that sets up a “cool culture,” in which students hoping to belong won’t violate: in one culture there is a saying that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered.” 


Susan Cain notes three classic profiles of the quiet student: a) the introvert who thinks before speaking; b) the shy student who fears humiliation in front of others; and c) the hyper-sensitive student who pays acute attention to everything and simply can’t process all the data fast enough.  It is easy to think of other possible profiles, too.  The important point is that students differ; they are not homogeneous: one size does not fit all. 


If teachers want to succeed in developing their students, it’s important to learn something about why an individual student is quiet.  Some actions recommended by our colleagues were:

Check the context.  Is there a “cool culture” prevailing in the section or at the school that could discourage outsiders from participating?  Is a virus going around?  Did the students just get exam or recruiting results back?  Is now the toughest part of the course? Anyway, are all the students unusually quiet in your class?

Check the history.  Is there something in the student’s background that might discourage class participation? 

Triangulate.  Is that student quiet in other courses too?  Is he or she generally reclusive or isolated?

Ask the student.  It could be as simple as greeting a student in the hallway and asking, “How is it going? “ or saying “We would love to hear more from you.”  A practice of some instructors is to send all students a mid-course participation feedback and to request a meeting with those students who have participated least–letting the student know where he or she stands in class has the benefits of transparency and motivation.  Of course, requesting a formal meeting with a quiet-because-fearful student might serve to amplify such fears.  Go easy, at first.

Check your own assumptions.  Be careful about framing any of this diagnostic information in a way that tilts the conclusions consistent with an implicit bias.  The answer to “Why quiet?” is usually more complicated than a stereotype might allow.

Anyway, why do we call on students in class?


This last point triggered an extended discussion about the purpose of calling on a student, especially “cold-calling.”  We pondered whether we do a disservice to our students by curating classroom discussions in a way that overvalues extroversion?  Are we discouraging “quiet” leaders who bring significant value in business?  Many of us like to teach by the case method because doing so helps to model leadership, the ability to draw ideas and action plans out of a diverse group—the Latin root for the word, “educate,” is “educe,” which means to “lead out.”  Drawing the best out of people through conversation is fundamental to leadership.  Therefore, we call on students in class to model and exercise leadership.  Our calling has many purposes:

Motivates and sets expectations.  No free-riding or passive resistance.  The student is a member of our classroom community and is obliged to contribute to the success of the whole enterprise.  Everyone owns the outcome, not just the teacher.  Calling can nudge the student into higher levels of participation.  Participating in a business discussion is a learned skill, which may not come naturally.  Do all students want to stick their necks out?  Probably not.

Evaluates.  The teacher might call on a student to check what the student knows or is thinking.  And calling helps the teacher make a real-time assessment about the state of the whole conversation.

Communicates care and interest in the student.

Highlights.  Cold-calling in the middle of class can signal importance in the question being asked.

Engages.  Help everyone get into the conversation.  Help to direct the conversation to quiet parts of the room.

Enlarges.  Maybe the class conversation is dominated by one point of view.  A cold-call can get more ideas and bring in other perspectives. 

Pivots.  Inject new lines of inquiry

Socializes.  Through calling students into the case discussion, we exercise their capacity to advance their ideas into a conversation.

What to do?


Melissa and I posed a mini-case study about a quiet student, and the difficulty that the instructor was having in drawing that student into classroom discussion.  Suppose a colleague came to you with that problem, what advice might you offer?

Write to the quiet student.  Express your concern for the student’s low participation and invite a meeting to discuss an action plan to improve.

Act like an ally, not an adversary.

Emphasize that a case discussion is a conversation that belongs to all of us.  Every person has an obligation to sustain the quality and energy of the conversation.

Pause more when you see hands in the air.  Introverts take a moment to process a question and frame a reply.

When planning to call a quiet student into a discussion, think carefully about how you will frame the question.  Extroverts will respond by answering the question they want to answer.  But introverts will tend to respond to your question, and probably want to please you with a response.  Therefore, frame the question thoughtfully.

Tactics to draw quiet students in:

Invite them to summarize conflicting points of view or positions taken by others.  This offers a relatively low-risk opportunity to talk.

Ask if they understand what someone else just said.

At the end of a class, ask the quiet students which other students helped them with the biggest impact on their learning that day.

At orientation, reaffirm the value of participation.

Reflect: what implicit assumptions are there in the culture of the section about when it is appropriate to talk?

Reflect: if the students, in general, are too quiet, it is possible that you are doing too much telling, and not enough asking.

The hour flew by.  And the group of assembled colleagues seemed to have plenty more to say.  Perhaps we should reconvene on this topic again in the fall.  Subjects tabled for some date in the future would include how the “quiet” temperament fits into conventional models of leadership; should a school actually recruit for attributes of “quiet”?  And is there a “cool culture” at school?


This session and the previous two (here and here) lend a basis for reflection by the instructor.  With the forthcoming break at the end of the semester (and for some, the summer), this is a useful time to take stock.  Best wishes to all for renewal in the weeks ahead!