5 Tips for Engaging Introverted Students in a Virtual Setting

Jun 28, 2023

By Tessa Borrego, Teacher-Tutor at TbT

It is difficult to discredit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the unprecedented expansion of online learning in the last few years. While some students naturally embraced or even thrived in completely virtual or hybrid models of schooling, both statistical and anecdotal evidence clearly demonstrate the undue social-emotional and academic duress it caused to learners worldwide.

While it may be assumed that introverted students would automatically thrive in a setting in which they do not have to interact with their classmates face-to-face, the inherent uncertainties of virtual education can bring with it a horde of worries for reserved learners.  Here are five tangible ways you can best support your introverted students in an online environment: 

1. Set the tone early 

Nothing ensures a classroom full of anxious students more than the fear of the unknown. Students thrive on routines, clear expectations, and fair enforcement of rules. The same is true  even in a virtual environment.

Just as you would in a physical classroom, establish class boundaries and norms within the first few days of meeting students. Ideally, create as many of these rules alongside the students themselves — when students have a say in how the classroom is run, there is more buy-in for them to actually adhere to these agreements.

Let students know early on your “non-negotiables,” or what behaviors are absolutely not tolerated. This could include inappropriate use of technology (like using distracting images as their background or profile picture), hate speech/bullying in online chats, or making provocative gestures on camera. Discipline these behaviors swiftly and firmly, removing students from the class if necessary. This projects the image that professionalism is mandatory, even in an online world where students could hypothetically attend class laying in bed in their favorite pair of pajamas. Introverted students in particular welcome an environment that they know is both stable and free of stressors. 

Yet, even more frustrating than ambiguous rules are constantly changing rules, so make sure that these expectations are reinforced each class session. For example, if it is important for you to have students keep their video on at all times, stick to it. If a student turns off their camera halfway through the session, address it rather than letting it slide. After a few reminders, most students will get the message that they need to follow basic online etiquette. 

On the other hand, make sure that these expectations are reasonable to begin with. Consider this: while it might be perfectly reasonable to expect a student to use standard English when completing class assignments, is it necessary to require it when a student is typing an answer in a chat? Learning online is already awkward and stressful enough, so be sure to carefully curate a learning environment that is structured, while also compassionate. 

2. Encourage safe participation 

One of the biggest roadblocks teachers faced during the pandemic was lack of participation in the virtual classroom. Dismal rows of gray boxes (cameras and microphones off) replaced student faces and voices. Morale seemed to drop to an all time low as teachers struggled to find a way to bring authenticity through a computer screen. With the presence of social media perfection forever looming in the background, the peculiar stress of seeing oneself on screen for a 40-minute class could easily seem like some sort of cruel and unusual punishment. 

So, what’s a teacher to do? First, understand that as frustrating as situations like these may be, the response for students to shrink back when faced with remote instruction is natural. As an introverted child who grew into an introverted adult, I can tell you firsthand that the video platform of online learning brings with it a certain kind of awkwardness and hesitation that anybody who has ever had to endure a grueling week of Zoom work calls can attest to. 

The best solution? Adapt, adapt, adapt. Allow students to communicate in the way that feels most comfortable for them, even if it’s not traditional. Thoroughly research the online platform you are using and the features it has for participants to utilize. For instance, take advantage of polling tools, anonymous question asking, and emojis/online stickers. These can all be leveraged as a means of formative assessment that students are more likely to engage in until they feel comfortable clicking that “unmute” button.

Above all else, remember that although it can be easy to equate lack of participation to lack of enthusiasm or knowledge of the subject, for introverted students it might be that they are perfectly capable, but are being held back by fear of standing out. When students do respond, even if it’s by writing a simple “yes” or “no” in the chat or tacking on a thumbs-up on the corner of their video feed, provide ample positive feedback to encourage participation (in any and all forms) to reoccur. Gradually, students will warm up to these small acts of contribution, and take bigger risks as their comfort level grows. 

3. Embrace fluidity 

Virtual learning for all its freedom and innovation, can definitely be a learning curve for both students and teachers alike. Lead by example. If tech issues ensue, stay calm and roll with the punches. Maintain a sense of humor, be creative with solutions, and embolden students to do the same. If you as the teacher and adult in the room elude a sense of confidence, shy students can feed positively off that energy. Incorporate student voice and low-risk social-emotional activities, like meme check-ins, surveys, and games (such as Kahoot, Blooket, or Gimkit). 

Additionally, introverted students tend to perform better when they feel like they have a high level of control over their learning, so whenever possible, provide a range of options rather than a list of demands. During my teaching internship at the height of the pandemic, I recall well-intentioned educators who required students to submit video clips instead of written assignments. Though the idea was to make the work interactive, personable, and easier to grade, it ended with many students failing the courses merely because they were intimidated with recording themselves.

When all else fails, brainstorm project ideas together with students to gauge what they may be interested in, as well as what is manageable and accessible in their circumstance. You may be surprised with the depth and creativity students can come up with when they take the reins of their own learning. 

4. Keep equity at the forefront 

Equity is a concern that has been in the minds of educators for decades, but it took a new shape when virtual learning became mainstream. Although the research is still emerging, preliminary data shows deep divides between general education students and special needs students, urban students and rural students, and affluent students and low-income students.

Additionally, students from all backgrounds suffered decreased mental health when the rapid switch to remote learning robbed them of social interactions and milestones, such as graduations and field trips. When dealing with disengagement at the online level, ask yourself whether the issue is in the student’s direct control, or whether there may be a separate or hidden factor at play. 

Is a student refusing to turn on their camera because they are embarrassed by their living space? Is he or she always muted because they have noisy siblings in the background? Is homework inconsistently turned in due to lack of reliable internet access? Even something like eating while in the middle of a lesson may be less about being rude, and more about limited access to food or simply cultural differences. 

Specifically, when it comes to introverted students, consider if what you are asking them to do online is more excessive than it would be in the physical classroom. For example, would you ever expect students to be thrown into a room together with classmates they barely know and be expected to collaborate and produce excellent work with limited supervision? Of course not, but this is essentially what occurs when we assign students to random breakout rooms to complete a group task. Though at first glance it may not seem like an unfair request, for an introvert, this may be a recipe for intense discomfort. 

The key here lies in the difference between equality and equity. Whereas equality seeks to provide all individuals with the same resources, rights, and opportunities, equity accepts that some groups of people hold privileges that give them a distinct advantage. Acknowledging that these privileges exist is not singling out students for what they have or do not have, but understanding how they influence all aspects of a classroom– physical, virtual, or otherwise. Accommodating introverted students through a lens of equity may mean discretely alerting students before you call on them, opening up a private breakout room for them to work in, or posting lesson plans online for review before class starts so that they know what to expect. These may not be necessary measures to take with extroverted students, but they may mean all the difference to introverted ones. 

5. Play to introverted students’ strengths 

Although much has been said about how the spotlight and artificiality of answering through a screen can overwhelm introverted learners, it also opens them up to a world of academic and social liberty that can’t be found anywhere else. Without the demands of having to physically engage with rooms full of their peers, introverted students can focus their energy on the lesson at hand and contributing to the class conversations. What may appear to be a checked out student with the video and audio feed shut off, may very well be an actively engaged and self-directed learner. 

Even as a graduate student, as much as I can vividly recall the preoccupation with maintaining a picture perfect online image, I also remember the relief of being allowed the comfort and ease of learning from home. Particularly, I find myself drawn to the written chat features of online learning, because it enables me to formulate my response in advance and authentically represent myself. Private message features also mean students can privately make teachers aware of any issues or answer/ask a question without fear of classmates judging them. 

Instead of focusing on what introverted students may be lacking, praise the unique strengths they bring to the table, such as being attentive listeners, technology wizards, detailed writers, and more. An asset-based approach can not only foster a sense of pride and confidence in introverted students, but nudge them towards positions of leadership they may not have ever envisioned themselves in before. 

Bottom Line:

At its best, online learning can be a wonderful tool for connecting students and educators across wide barriers and exploring innovative modes of learning. But, at its worst, it can be a counter-productive platform that serves to exacerbate existing social anxiety and inequities. Educators are in the valuable position to help shape students’ experiences in the world of virtual instruction and provide them with 21st century skills that will serve them well in future careers and beyond. 

There may be a fine line between hand-holding and throwing students off into the deep end, but rest assured that even the most withdrawn student wants to be heard and needs the right outlet to do so. By maintaining a mindset that aims to meet students where they are at and being sympathetic to their lived experiences, we can strive towards an online classroom that, for many students, is every bit as effective as being in person.

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