Every teacher’s class starts with only a handful of students regularly contributing. But when difficult or controversial subject matter makes shy or introverted students afraid to participate, technology can shine.

Our latest webinar is with Matthew Numer, who teaches Human Sexuality at the University of Dalhousie to an undergraduate class of 450. His course covers biological, cultural, ethical, historical, psychological, religious and semantic aspects of sex, and ventures into territory that may be uncomfortable for some students. The webinar covers how students’ experiences can be improved through the thoughtful use of tech, and list some strategies to involve all your classroom’s personalities—from the bashful to the outrageous.

Numer speaks from experience and points to peer-reviewed statistics. In a study he co-authored for the International Journal of Technologies in Learning, shy students said that technology enabled them to speak or participate without “outing” themselves in a large classroom. The study’s co-author, instructor Becky Spencer, expands on this idea: “In a class about human sexuality, with 400 students, it’s both logistically challenging and sensitive to allow students to be able to take part and contribute their views. They frequently noted this as a benefit during the study.”

One undergraduate interviewed in a post-course focus group said: “I think [technology] makes people more comfortable to be able to answer freely without having to raise their hand.” Another added: “I thought this was the most engaging course I have ever been in… The environment of the class allowed for students to be open about their opinions.”

Numer’s class uses Top Hat Classroom to answer instructor questions on their own personal devices, and to contribute to forum discussion in class.

Speaking out in class

In another recent free Top Hat Webinar, we spoke with Susan Cain, New York Times best-selling author of Quiet: The Secret Strengths of Introverts. She explains that shy students aren’t always introverted, and introverted students aren’t necessarily shy. Being an introvert means “feeling at our most alive and in our sweet spot when things are a little bit quieter and more mellow,” she says, adding that many students pretend to be extroverts in order to fit in.

Students who tend to avoid speaking out in class still want to engage, though—either one-on-one with the instructor, or through private discussion with their peers. “If everybody’s throwing out their ideas fast and furious,” says Cain. “The nervous system of an introvert at that point is starting to shut down a little bit… If you can incorporate online and other methods of reducing all those inputs at once, it allows all students to engage.”

And when students can engage with the class and each other, their analysis of the subject improves. “An opportunity to engage at a deeper level enables critical thinking,” said Numer. “Together with all the measurements we did, it was very evident that students increased critical thinking skills through Top Hat and the course more broadly.”

Numer’s course may be fairly unique in this instance in that it covers some awkward subjects, but knowing how to create space for all students to offer dissenting opinions, personal experiences and their own thoughts in front of a room of several hundred strangers is a skill that any professor could use—in large and small classes.

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