According to Susan Cain, author of the best-sellers Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, higher education often penalizes introverts through group work and participation points—and some students even have to pretend to be extroverts in order to fit into the system.

“The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths,” says her Quiet Manifesto. Educators, she contends, have an important role to play in empowering the quieter members of their class.

In a recent webinar with Top Hat, Cain shared some surprising facts about introverts and higher education—as well as some solutions that students and educators can use to work together to draw strength from this personality type. If you’re interested, you can watch the free webinar recording now.

In the meantime, here are six facts about introverts in the class that we learned from Susan Cain.

  1. ‘Introvert’ doesn’t mean ‘too shy to speak up in class’

  2. Cain is a former lawyer, and a TED talk alumna. She’s also a self-described introvert. But aren’t introverts supposed to be shy of the stage and terrified of public speaking? Not necessarily, says Cain.

    “Introverts have nervous systems that react more when there’s just stuff going on around us,” says Cain. “Could be people, but it could also be bright lights and noise and so on. That means that we’re feeling at our most alive and in our sweet spot when things are a little bit quieter and more mellow.”

    She adds that many introverts are shy, but that’s not a universal trait. On the other hand, she says, “you have lots of extroverts who are shy too and extroverts who are uncomfortable with public speaking or who clam up at a cocktail party.” It’s not about fear, but about where you draw your energy.

  3. Introverted students get steamrolled during group work

  4. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when introverts are asked to work in larger groups, they tend not to excel. Susan Cain says: “I think that too often groups are designed as a kind of free for all like, ‘Okay. Go forth group, and go do this group project and bring it back when you’re done.’”

    “That very often devolves into either the most dominant student or the one who cares most about the grade doing all the work and taking over. It’s not really pleasant for anybody.”

  5. Students lie to themselves about whether they’re introverted

  6. “Probably the biggest inaccuracy that I see people making, especially during the college years, [is that] a lot of people who are clearly introverts describe themselves as extroverts. I think that’s because of the social stigma that they might feel about being an introvert,” says Cain.

    Armed with a better definition of the term ‘introvert,’ students will be able to ask for the help they need.

    (If you’re wondering whether you’re an introvert, Cain offers a quiz on her Quiet Revolution site. A quick way to tell: “Extroverts tend to speak in a louder voice and more rapidly than introverts do.”)

  7. Engagement is not the same as putting your hand up and saying what’s in your head

  8. Connecting back to Cain’s first point, it’s not that introverted students are afraid to speak up—they just don’t feel the need to among large groups of their peers.


    Cain doesn’t recommend tying grades to whether students speak in class. “It’s not a system that’s encouraging people to be thoughtful or to be respectful of other people’s time.” An introvert might show classroom engagement by having deep discussions with one of their peers instead, for instance.

  9. Technology can help introverts find their voice in a classroom

  10. “Let’s say there’s like 15 students around the room, and 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, right? It’s starting to feel like, “Oh my gosh. There’s all these inputs coming in, so I’m going to kind of regroup over here.”

    “If you can incorporate online and other methods of reducing all those inputs at once, it allows all students to engage.”

  11. Teachers have an important role in making space for introverts

  12. All instructors know that a large array of different personality types attend class. There are several ways that courses, discussions and assignments can be designed to make sure both introverts and extroverts are able to do their best work. Some of the questions she answers include:

    • What alternatives to group work can help introverts shine?
    • How can classrooms and school buildings be physically designed to help introverts?
    • What tactics can you use to include the ideas and feedback of introverts in a group class environment?
    • What if you, as a teacher, are also an introvert?

    Susan Cain shares the answer to these questions as well as lots more wisdom and knowledge in her exclusive talk with Top Hat—A Conversation with Susan Cain: Bringing Out the Best in Quiet Students. Get free access to this special discussion by completing the form below.