Austin Renfrey prefers to walk around with headphones on. The third-year Carleton University law student says he feels more comfortable alone than in a large group of people. His circle of friends is small and he’s not interested in meeting too many new faces. He isn’t completely reclusive – he enjoys spending time with his friends and, one day, hopes to command the courtroom.
From the above, Mr. Renfrey has concluded that, like many people, he’s an introvert. In that respect he has something in common with U.S. President Barack Obama and author J.K. Rowling, according to Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has sold more than two million copies.
As an introvert, Mr. Renfrey is one of many who feels that one of the pillars of postsecondary evaluations – class participation – discriminates against him. It’s no small matter: marks for participation may account for a quarter or more of a student’s final grade.
Although Ms. Cain says introverts account for about one third of the world’s population, there are no universally agreed-upon criteria for what makes someone introverted. Robert Coplan, a psychology professor at Carleton, says introversion is a personality trait separate from shyness or social anxiety. “It’s about the degree of life interference,” says Dr. Coplan. “If your feelings are hard for you but you’re able to cope with them, that’s part of your personality. If the feelings are making it so you can’t participate in day-to-day tasks, that falls into an anxiety disorder.”
Introverts derive energy from being alone and expend energy when spending time with other people, says Dr. Coplan. “There’s not necessarily a component of anxiety associated with it. Introverts might like and enjoy hanging out with other people, but it drains them,” he says.
Children are asked to perform verbally from a young age through show and tell. That’s an introvert’s “worst nightmare,” says Dr. Coplan. “You’ve got to stand up in front of people and everyone’s looking at you and you have to talk. Not surprisingly, quiet kids tend not to talk or say very few words.”
To make matters worse, teachers may mistake silence for slowness. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that K-12 teachers viewed quiet kids as less academically competent than their more talkative peers.
Mr. Renfrey says he knew he was an introvert from a young age. “I’ve never liked being called on,” he says. “It feels like you’re under a microscope.” Participating in groups, he says, is “something I will constantly have to work at.”
Like Mr. Renfrey, Marsha Pinto knew from childhood that she thrived in quiet places. The fourth-year University of Toronto student and aspiring speech pathologist founded Softest Voices, an organization for shy and introverted students, in 2013. “Growing up, I was always known as the shy girl who never participated and didn’t have many friends,” she says.
Ms. Pinto also struggles with class participation. “It’s not fair for many students like me to simply be forced into facing one of our biggest fears because our grade depends on it,” she says.
Emily Klein, an associate professor in the education department at Montclair University in New Jersey, says teachers often equate class participation with learning, when the connection is not always there. “If class participation is one indication of how we learn, then people who are naturally introverted suffer because of that,” she says.
Dr. Klein says she uses online exercises to evaluate participation in her university courses rather than in-class discussions. She says this makes introverted students feel more comfortable about sharing their thoughts.
“I think one of the big problems we have is that we don’t ask both our extroverted and our introverted students to push themselves beyond their comfort zone,” she says. “We ask introverted students to do it all the time, but we never ask extroverted students to do it.”
Carleton’s Dr. Coplan said he encourages his students to talk to their professors if they have trouble speaking up in class. “If participation is a strong component of the course then the onus would be on the instructor to at least offer some alternative means for someone who comes and identifies this is an issue with them,” he says.
Mr. Renfrey says the hardest thing about being an introvert is living in a world full of extroverts. “We don’t really talk about introversion, except for the introverts – and they’re keeping to themselves. It’s an unfairly represented population,” he says.
Ms. Pinto says it wasn’t until she started blogging about her experiences as an introvert for the Huffington Post and was met with support from people like her that she decided to found Softest Voices. “The hardest thing is all the misunderstanding and being labeled as the ‘unsuccessful’ personality,” she says. “I began to realize the need for awareness on this issue. If we can get people in higher positions to embrace the quiet personality, then it will create a ripple effect where quiet is seen as a strength instead of a weakness.”
Although Quiet has brought much-needed attention to the introvert community, John Zelenski, director of Carleton University’s Happiness Lab, which studies personality and well-being, said it is only the first step. “I think Susan Cain does a very good job of pointing out a lot of the ways that life is hard for introverts,” Dr. Zelenski said. “But a lot of them we haven’t studied in very systematic ways. I’m hoping people will sit down and study these things more.”
Emma Tranter is entering her fourth year in the Carleton University undergraduate journalism program this September.