by Madelaine Morrison, Department of History

For many students, shyness presents a formidable obstacle to tutorial participation.  Sitting like ducks in a hot, stuffy classroom, they must converse with peers they barely know under the watchful gaze of the beady-eyed tutorial leader who, pen in hand, scratches symbols across an inscrutable participation checklist.

I have informally observed two types of shyness (frequently co-existing within the same person) to different degrees and in different proportions.  The intellectually shy student worries about not sounding clever enough.  For the socially shy student, the focus of the anxiety is not so much the ideas themselves but their delivery.  He or she overwhelmingly fears the red-hot sensation of others’ glances while trying to fashion an articulate response.  Undergraduates crippled by one or both of these qualms often find it well nigh impossible to utter a word in class, no matter how assiduously they read the required material.

My sympathy for the shy student stems from personal experience.  I was a socially shy undergraduate whose only saving grace was that my desire for high marks overrode my nervousness.  I blushed and stammered a bit at first, but ultimately earned strong participation grades.  I know, however, that there are many out there who are not so fortunate.  These sorts of students are all too aware they are facing a losing battle.  This realization can all too often lead to overall frustration with a learning system which, to their minds, unfairly favours those who enjoy speaking in class.[1]

Reynold Redekopp and Elizabeth Bourbonniere observe that “a change of time, space, anonymity, and voice” can do wonders for encouraging reluctant oral participants.  They have discovered, for instance, that several students who rarely or never speak up in class make enthusiastic, insightful contributions to alternate forums such as online discussion threads and blogs.[2]  This is a valid point and I do recommend virtual discussions if time and resources permit.  At the same time, we must beware of championing the internet as a single, fix-all solution.  Letting students retreat behind the cloak of digital text is engaging them in their comfort zone.  It is a good beginning and a good supplement to face-to-face discussion, but we are doing students no favours if we don’t challenge them to venture further into unfamiliar turf.

My own approach to student shyness aims to be empathetic while also recognizing that oral communication skills are critical for success in both academia and industry.  If we can reach a happy medium between making allowances and encouraging real effort towards speaking up in class, then we will have achieved something truly worthwhile.  After much ado, then, here my preferred method for helping shy students find their voice:

1) On the first day of class, I ask shy students to identify themselves to me via email, so we can work out some sort of system of accommodation.  To discourage freeloaders, I stress that emailing me will not result in a “free ride” as regards seminar attendance or participation.   Rather, self-identification will simply give me some context for assessing the participation in which they do take part.
 2) When a student writes me to let me know of a problem, I respond in the following way:

-I tell them that I have made a note in my books, and will take their shyness into account when calculating the participation mark.
-I also inform them that they can email me a short 1-2 paragraph reflection piece before each seminar, to contribute to (but not totally replace) their oral participation mark.
-I explain that it is my duty as an educator to help them build their oral skills and I am able to help them in the following ways:

  • I encourage them to visit me during office hours or before or after seminar.  That way they can “test run” some ideas with me.  Students with intellectual shyness often want confirmation that their ideas are “right” even though they invariably give very thoughtful critiques.  Talking through ideas one-on-one gives them an opportunity to practice intellectual conversation in a non-threatening atmosphere.  It also provides me with the opportunity to ask them a question during tutorial with the knowledge that they will be able to answer it (more or less) confidently.
  • I furthermore recommend that they write out their thoughts on the assigned readings before coming to class.  This gives them the opportunity to choose their words calmly and precisely without undue social pressure.  Upon arrival at the seminar, they will find that they have a “script” to remind them of what they wanted to say and exactly how they wished to articulate it (This can be beneficial to all of our students to encourage more informed discussion!)
  • Finally, I ask shy students to challenge themselves to speak up at least once per class.  If they can fulfill that quota for the immediate future, then I’m happy.  As the term and their confidence progresses, I may increase the number to twice a class.  As an undergraduate, I remember feeling very nervous the first few times I talked in class, but I felt that if I could force myself to contribute three times right away then the nervousness would eventually wear off.  I was pleased to discover that it indeed did!

Students who plead shyness yet refuse to make an effort in some other way generally do not respond to my email or suggestions.  This is a shame, yet such cases are unavoidable.

By contrast, those who are serious about addressing their fear relish the opportunity to explore alternatives to the all-or-nothing oral participation grade.  As they progress, they find to their surprise that their confidence gradually improves.  As a former TA mentor for the Department of History, I suggested the above course of action to one of my teaching assistants.  According to the TA, this student flourished remarkably over the course of the term.  Indeed, the student came to look forward to seminars and was eagerly considering which upper-year courses to take in the future.

In short, shyness should provoke our empathy but not our pity.  Our response must balance respect for the student’s particular needs with the realization that we owe it to them to help them face their fears.  If I can nurture this change in even one student, then my work as a Teaching Assistant has truly been worthwhile.


[1] Robert Sommer and Barbara A. Sommer, “Credit for Comments, Comments for Credit,” Teaching of Psychology 34 no. 2 (2007): 104-105.

[2] Reynold Redekopp and Elizabeth Bourbonniere, “Giving Reluctant Students a Voice,” Learning & Leading with Technology (May 2009): 34 <http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ839528.pdf>.

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