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Quiet Riot: Introverts, Extraverts and the College Experience

Published: Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 18:09

“Confidence is an antidote to anxiety,” Rego advised.


The Binary Continuum

That’s just a fancy way of saying that the relationship between introverts and extraverts looks more like an infinity symbol than a teeter-totter.

If not anxiety or lack of confidence, then what makes an introvert seem so reserved?


Some talk of the differences between extraverts and introverts in terms of energy. Extraverts gain energy from stimulating environments. Alternatively, introverts must take breaks from over-stimulating situations to “re-charge.”

The science goes something like this: Everyone’s brain communicates via the nervous system with a handful of neurotransmitters. Each has a different function and travels through different pathways in the nervous system. You may have heard of dopamine before? That’s a neurotransmitter — and what makes extraverts, essentially, prefer what they do.

“Extroverts use a short dopamine pathway,” writes Heidi Eve-Cahoon a BSN and RN from Kent State University, in an editorial published in Journal of Nursing Education in 2003. “They are able to talk quickly and talk more than listen. They have good short-term memory and are quick thinking. They do well on timed tests and under pressure, unlike introverts.”

Introverts, on the other hand, use a long acetylcholine pathway, which takes longer to retrieve information particularly when asked to verbalize their thoughts on the spot.

To continue with that thought, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Motor Behavior, conducted by researchers at the University of Göttingen and University of Bern, found in a study of 32 introverted and extraverted individuals that the former had faster premotor processing but slower central and peripheral motor processing than the extraverted subjects.

You can see, then, how this could affect an introvert in a class that requires class participation or discussion-intense lectures.

Western Nevada College provides information on its website for student reference on their ideal learning environment based on their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator results.

Extraverts, according to WNC’s interpretation, are most likely to be challenged by reading, research and writing because they are “solitary endeavors.”

“[Extraverts] do well studying with a friends,” the guide reads. “Extraverts will learn best if they study as if they are preparing to teach someone else. […] Extraverts thrive when they are allowed time to think things through by talking, such as in classroom discussions, or when working with another student. They excel with learning activities that have visible results and involve people interaction.”

Conversely, the WNC guide suggests introverted students “enjoy reading, lectures and written over oral work.”

“Introverts may encounter difficulty with instructors who speak quickly without allowing time for mental processing,” the WNC guide reads. “They are often uncomfortable in discussion groups, may find it difficult to remember names and hesitate to speak up in class.”

ASU alumna Allison Perlis is by fair account an introvert — she’s been to clubs just twice and partied “a little” in college but ultimately wasn’t a fan. While in college, she was frustrated with classmates who asked off-the-cuff questions that interrupted the lecture. She disliked being asked to answer a question on the spot by a professor, preferring to put her reflections on a class discussion to paper for a participation grade.

“I don’t remember the first time I heard of [introversion] as a word, but I feel like if I did then I’d be like, ‘Yes, that’s what it is. That’s what I am,’” she said.

Perlis majored in graphic design at ASU — a pretty typical area of study for introverts — but her social preferences didn’t factor into her decision about college size or reputation. Though she considered attending small private and art schools, she enrolled at ASU for its financial aid.

She didn’t feel like her personality affected her ability to communicate with her professors and classmates, but she does think the classroom environment is tailored for extraverts.

“I think it’d be harder to be like, ‘Well, you’re introverted. Let’s structure a class around thinking quietly to ourselves for a while,’” she said. “I think that’s why it works well when there’s class discussion then you go home and write something.”

“I would like for classes not to have as much a participation requirement where you have to speak in front of everybody — presentations [and] being called on when [teachers] are like, ‘You don’t raise your hand enough; you get a bad grade.’ And I’m like, ‘I totally am learning! I just don’t need to talk to the whole class.’”

This issue is surprisingly common among professors, as articulated by Montgomery College professor Tami Isaacs in a web article for Faculty Focus.

“Even if we do not include class participation in our grades, how a student behaves in class does influence our perception of the student’s abilities,” Isaacs wrote. “These opinions may become important if the student’s grade in class is on the borderline or the student asks for a letter of recommendation.”

While it’s clear that there are complementary, if not slightly conflicting, differences in extraverted and introverted learning preferences, the responsibility falls on the student or instructors, and not the educational system as a whole, to accommodate the different personalities.

Isaacs suggests that professors try to not mistake an “interested introvert” for an “unmotivated student” — something Mesa Community College adjunct professor Rosanne Magarelli teaches to faculty members in her Brain-Based Learning workshop.

Magarelli, who described herself as an extravert and cites 36 years of teaching and honing her methods for drawing introverts out in class discussions, feels the brilliance of introverts can be misunderstood by many instructors. It’s devastating that an introvert’s classmates do not get to hear what he or she may have to say on a topic, she said, citing instances where an introvert can eloquently discuss a topic in a paper yet does not bring up his or her points in class discussions to allow extraverts to benefit from his or her ideas.

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