Do we privilege extroverts?

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently.  Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.  Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent the vast majority of their energy parsing students by demographic traits.  Far fewer studies explore whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students.  Today I want to describe some new findings from our own Augustana data regarding more introverted students.  I think these findings are worth considering seriously if we are going to ensure that all students are given an equal opportunity to feel like they belong on campus.

Two items in the mid-year freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation.  One question asks, “How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?”  The other question asks students if they have “begun participating in at least one student organization that interests them.” We know acclimation is important because students who don’t acclimate to Augustana tend to feel like they don’t fit in and then are much more likely to struggle, leave, or both.  And we know about the connection between acclimation and a sense of belonging because we also ask freshmen in the mid-year survey about the degree to which they feel like they belong on campus.  In addition to a host of research findings that lay out the positive relationship between acclimation, fit, and student success, our analysis has produced similar findings in each of the last several years.

But now that we have been able to link the Student Readiness Survey (data collected in the summer prior to enrollment) with the mid-year freshman survey (data collected at the end of winter term), we can add a potentially important personal disposition to the mix. This measure is a three-item scale called Comfort with Social Interaction that asks students to indicate their level of comfort meeting new people and interacting in a large, unfamiliar social setting.  So the goal of this analysis was to see if, even after accounting for acclimating behaviors (talking to professors and joining student organizations), this personal disposition continued to impact students’ sense of belonging on campus.

First, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale produced a statistically significant positive effect (in a statistical sense) on the number of professors that freshmen talked to outside of class.  In other words, students who were less comfortable with social interaction were significantly less likely to talk to their professors than those students with high Comfort with Social Interaction scores.  This finding held even after controlling for gender (because we know that female students tend to seek out professors more often than their male counterparts).

Second, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale also produced a statistically significant positive effect on the likelihood that a student had begun participating in a student organization that interested them.  Put another way, students with lower Comfort with Social Interaction scores were significantly less likely to have begun participating in a student organization that interested them.

Finally, we investigated whether the Comfort with Social Interaction score might influence a freshman’s sense of belonging on campus even after taking into account whether or not he or she had joined a student organization.  Sure enough, even after accounting for joining a student organization, the Comfort with Social Interaction produced a statistically significant positive effect.  In fact, our analysis found that the degree of discomfort with social interaction (i.e. a low score on the above scale) could ultimately produce a larger negative impact on a sense of belonging on campus than simply not belonging to a student group.

Both of these findings seem to hold important implications independently.  The impact of a student’s comfort with social interaction on the number of professors he or she talked to outside of class is important because it suggests that simply inviting students to faculty office hours may not be enough, especially if the students who might benefit most from such interactions are also more introverted.  This may well mean that those students need some incentive to initiate such an interaction and “break the ice.”  Although we often infer that students who don’t come to office hours are less engaged in the course, this may well be a mistaken conclusion.  In addition, this finding might even translate to the nature of student participation in class discussion.

Indeed, there seem to be multiple instances in our interactions with freshmen where we seem to pathologize introversion.  In talking about these findings with some of the Student Affairs administrators, they reflected on how often residence hall staff or peer mentors might worry about students who they don’t see as often hanging out in common areas.  While it is possible that these students may be struggling, it is also true that they may simply prefer environments with fewer people.  Pressing these students to participate in activities that aren’t comfortable for them may well simply contribute to a sense of isolation and marginalization.  It may even be that our goals for freshman orientation don’t fully take into account the needs of our more introverted students at a time when they probably need us to show that we welcome them into our community too.

Taken together, these findings make me wonder if we have unintentionally created a culture at Augustana that privileges extroverts and makes it more difficult for introverts to find a niche.  I’ve had several conversations in the last year or two with faculty from disciplines that stereotypically enroll “less socially adept” individuals about their own senior survey data that hints at a lack of a “space” for those students on our campus.

I’m no where close to having some sort of smoking gun proof of such a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students.  However, I think this is an issue that is worth considering more seriously.  So I would ask you, based on your own observations or experience might we privilege extroverts?  What do we do to make sure that more introverted students have the support necessary to acclimate – even if it takes them longer to do so?  How might we make our community more welcoming to all students regardless of their comfort with social interactions?

Make it a good day,



5 thoughts on “Do we privilege extroverts?

  1. I’ve long suspected that extroverts have a distinct advantage in courses that award credit for class participation (which is why that isn’t part of my grading policy). Introverts aren’t necessarily shy or unduly retiring; they often just prefer to interact with smaller numbers of people at a time (1 or 2) and to have a quieter lifestyle. Small group discussions in the classroom and individual invitations to talk in the office are much more effective ways to engage these students. I also suspect (but have no data to support) that introverted students may take longer to find those 2 or 3 others students they relate to well, but that they will feel just as connected when they do as the extroverts who are happy being a part of many groups with lots of acquaintances. Introverts, in fact, may suffer more from our attempts to make extroverts out of them than from their limited number of connections–a status that is usually by choice.

  2. Yes, I think we do privilege extroverts. I agree with what Ruth Ann has written. I also believe that our emphasis on active learning — which certainly has many, many positives, so I am not trying to completely discredit it here — and certain kinds of group work can make introverts feel very uncomfortable inside and outside the classroom if they feel put on the spot. Introverts tend to be very observant; they generally like to listen (which is not passive if you are truly doing it) and have time to think before responding. I have found that blogging has been a great way to have students participate in the class as they have the time and space to process their observations.

    Augustana also emphasizes heavily extra-curricular activities, and being “involved”. Students proudly list several dozen organizations in their email signatures, and their schedules are packed from morning until late at night. Many prospective and first-year students have told me that the ability to be involved in a lot of activities was one of the reasons they were either considering or chose Augustana. That is the culture here. But all of that “organized fun”, as my father always refers to it, would have scared the hell out of my introverted self at eighteen and I don’t think I would have come here for that very reason. When does one have time to be alone? To think and recharge? But this may be a generational thing, too… We are teaching a generation that has had every second of their day mapped out for them so perhaps even introverts nowadays are used to that kind of constant involvement. Ugh.

    At the same time, we all — introverts and extroverts alike — need to be pushed out of our comfort zones from time to time to truly learn and grow. I just don’t think we ask the same of extroverts as we do of introverts.

    Thanks for raising this issue, Mark!

  3. Higher ed starts “disadvantaging” introverts before they are ever admitted. Entry to selective colleges requires applicants to show a long list of extracurricular activities, generally the kinds of activities that won’t be undertaken by introverts. If you put down Chess Club as your only activity, you will not look desirable, no matter how great a student you may be.

    Perhaps in addition to giving the introverts a little nudge, we ought to give extroverts permission and encouragement to find more silence and time to think instead of one more group activity.

  4. Thanks for raising this question, Mark. Maybe our next Augie Reads should be “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” or “Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference.” (I’m only half joking about this!)

    It would be great if we could figure out a way to nudge the introverts and extroverts in opposite directions, as Leslie suggests above. Maybe introvert/extrovert status needs to be recognized as part of diversity discussions…?

  5. Quiet does raise some of these issues although in terms of its “fair and balanced” approach it feels a little like the Fox News of personality. As the book points out we have moved from a culture of character to one of personality. We have an almost reverential attitude toward the outgoing, talkative, and charismatic leader. And Leslie is absolutely right. With so many students doing things (as college-bound HS students, or graduate-school bound college students) to gain access, and with the colleges and graduate school complicit in heralding these students for having done so, the introvert can be at a profound disadvantage. Where Quiet gets really interesting for me is when it began to question whether we should all be praying so enthusiastically at the educational altar of group work. I do wonder too about the issue of nudging introverts and extroverts in opposite directions. The fact is that the introverts don’t need any more nudging: the pressure of the culture of personality have been doing that for years. Can you really change anything here? As the author of Quiet suggests, introverts who negotiate and extroverted world find it exhausting and many describe themselves as role playing. If all we can hope to get extroverts to do is pretend to be more introverted, I’m not sure what’s gained. I prefer a more inclusive system in which we stop telling people that the only way to find suggest is to get out there, make a lot of noise, and shake a lot of hands.

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