“They genuinely just don’t understand why we’re not as loud”: Exploring the educational experiences of students with introverted personality styles
Quiet, weird, plain, moody, closed… These are some of the words that young people feel are used by others to describe individuals with introverted personality styles.
What about the words these young people use to characterise themselves? Quiet is still in the mix, but also words like creative, selfless, kind and funny…
It turns out these young people have rich inner lives and complex thoughts about their personality but have rarely been directly asked about their thoughts in research. This is the gap I set out to fill with my doctoral thesis research by exploring student voice of secondary-aged students with introverted personality styles via direct interviews. I wanted to answer questions such as: how do these young people view introversion, how do they experience school, and what impact does this have on their wellbeing?
As part of the project, I also gathered views from teachers and educational psychologists (EPs) via online questionnaires to explore whether they believe introversion to be relevant to their professional role and consider the differences and similarities between their views and those expressed by the young people.
In this blog I will seek to present the main findings from my research and develop further the ideas that were initially explored in my previous blog on the topic of introversion, which I co-authored with Dr Kerrie Lissack.
I’m also hosting a webinar on this topic with EP Reach-Out next week, 17th November.
What do we already know?
Personality has historically attracted a lot of research interest in psychology but interestingly has received less attention in the educational psychology field. Since introversion was first comprehensively explored by Jung (1921/1971), it has consistently formed part of the major theories of personality (e.g. Cattell, 1950; Costa & McCrae, 1976; Eysenck, 1967). However, research has traditionally been skewed towards the extraverted end of the introvert/extravert continuum, with little research dedicated to the complexities, strengths and uniqueness of introverts.
A similar pattern can be found in the limited existing research into personality in the field of education, where the focus has been largely on teaching practices (e.g. open classrooms, active voice in learning, participation requirements) which favour more extraverted students (e.g. Flanagan & Addy, 2019; Walker, 2007; Zafonte, 2018). Moreover, much of the research to date has concentrated on cognitive factors and academic achievement and relied heavily on retrospective accounts by adults or views of staff surrounding students (e.g. Furnham, 2012; Kiss et al., 2014).
My research sought to address some of these omissions by focusing on introversion as a unique presentation, directly gathering student voice and concentrating on the implications for the wellbeing and emotional adjustment of these students.
What are teachers’ and EPs’ views on introversion?
In total 89 secondary school teachers/PGCE students and 144 EPs/Trainee EPs responded to their respective questionnaires.
Both respondent groups felt they had a good understanding of introversion but made some errors in identifying key characteristics of their presentation and acknowledged they had received very little formal training in this area; raising questions about their ability to accurately identify these students to support them. Overall, neither group believed that current secondary school environments are well-suited to meeting the emotional or learning needs of students with introverted personality styles.
Teachers reported attempts to support these students via individual strategies (rather than broader environmental changes) but acknowledged that this was not always possible due to competing demands in the classroom (e.g. time constraints, high level of need, curriculum pressures).
EPs acknowledged that personality factors were not routinely explored as part of their assessments and casework. The reasons for this included:
- some EPs believing the construct not to be relevant
- others feeling personality belonged to a medical model from which they wished to distance themselves
- a further group referred to the time constraints of the assessment process
- and finally some indicated they had simply overlooked this as a factor to explore but would consider it in the future.
What were young people’s views on introversion?
In total 11 young people between the ages of 11-15 years, who self-identified as having an introverted personality style, took part in an online semi-structured interview. The interview included a Personal Construct Psychology triadic elicitation activity to explore their construct of introversion.
The young people expressed a range of positive and negative emotions about school in their narratives, but with a noticeable focus on anxiety-related feelings of pressure, discomfort and nervousness. Overall, they implied their personality style created additional difficulties for them in navigating the school environment, which adversely impacted on their emotional adjustment and wellbeing. They also referenced feeling overlooked on occasions by staff and peers and experiencing societal pressures and expectations to act in more extraverted ways.
This quote, from one of the young people interviewed, poignantly highlights some of these themes:
“If I’m sat next to quite a loud person, it’s quite uncomfortable because it feels like I should be talking or like they’re annoyed with me, like expecting me to talk and they don’t really understand. I get quite scared, like they’re gonna make fun of me or I have to respond and I don’t really know how to. [It makes me feel] like I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing and try and change. I just sort of feel like I wish I could be more like that, and like talk more, ‘cause it would be better for other people, they would be getting, like, something back instead of just talking to nothing”Young person study participant
Encouragingly, young people also raised some positives about school which inform key learning points for professionals working with them. For example, one of the principal protective factors against difficulties faced were supportive and trusting relationships with adults and peers. The young people also spoke about greater understanding by those around them, having their opinions heard and being provided a choice about some aspects of their education.
What can we do as EPs?
Taking into account the findings from across both phases, I believe there are four key points we should keep in mind as EPs to better support this group of students:
Understand the complexity of introversion
EPs need to have a full appreciation of the complexity of the construct of introversion, how presentation can change across contexts and feel confident to share this with others. I suggest content on personality (to include introversion) is needed as part of postgraduate doctoral training to refresh undergraduate knowledge and raise understanding related specifically to the education field. Post-qualification professional development courses could also be helpful to further disseminate understanding to current EPs.
Be aware of introversion and the strengths that come with it
Within schools there needs to be a greater awareness of introversion and the strengths introverts can contribute, as an alternative to the predominant extravert ideal. I believe it may be helpful for EPs to consider personality factors more explicitly in their assessments, as part of their case formulation and in their recommendations to ensure a holistic understanding of all aspects of a young person when communicating with school staff.
Accept introverted ways of being
All professionals working with these young people, including EPs, should aim to be accepting of introverted ways of being and not place expectations on them to change their presentation or conform to societal norms of being more extraverted. In a practical sense, this means being mindful of goals set for these young people and the language used in reports/when talking about them (for example, please don’t write ‘they’re a lovely, hardworking person but they’re a little too quiet’).
Adjust the environment in relatively simple ways
Some relatively simple adjustments can be made in schools to improve these students’ school experience. Consulting young people directly about changes will be key. EPs are well placed to: elicit child voice about ideas; work co-productively with teachers on pertinent adjustments; and advocate for systemic change.
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world” – Mahatma Gandhi
My thesis can be accessed in full on Open Research Exeter
Sign up to my EP Reach-Out webinar where I will further discuss the educational experiences of introverted student.
Cattell, R. B. (1950). Personality: A systematic, theoretical, and factorial study. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1976). Age difference in personality structure: A cluster analytic approach. Journal of Gerontology, 31(5), 564-570.
Eysenck, H. J. (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Flanagan, K. M., & Addy, H. (2019). Introverts are not disadvantaged in group-based active learning classrooms. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, 45(1), 33-41.
Furnham, A. (2012). Learning style, personality traits and intelligence as predictors of college academic performance. Individual Differences Research, 10(3), 117-128.
Jung, C. G. (1921/1971). Psychological Types. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Kiss, M., Kotsis, Á., & Kun, A. (2014). The relationship between intelligence, emotional intelligence, personality styles and academic success. Business Education & Accreditation, 6(2), 23–35.
Walker, A. (2007). Group work in higher education: Are introverted students disadvantaged? Psychology Learning & Teaching, 6(1), 20-25.
Zafonte, M. (2018). A phenomenological investigation of introverted students and collaborative learning [Doctoral dissertation]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database.