Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently. Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.
Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent most of their energy parsing differences between students’ demographic traits. By contrast, far fewer studies have explored whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students, or from the perspective of improving the quality of a college experience, if the way that a college experience is constructed advantages certain personality traits. As a small residential liberal arts college that prides itself on the quality of its student-faculty and student-staff interactions, my institution has a vested interest in such questions.
Over the past several years, we have built a series of student surveys that allow us to track and link data from students over the course of their college career. During the freshman year, we give a pre-college survey that asks students about dispositions that might affect their initial success, a midyear survey that asks freshmen about their academic and social acclimation, and an end-of-the-year survey that focuses on first-year learning and growth.
Two items in the midyear freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation. One question asks, "How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?" The other question asks students if they have "begun participating in at least one student organization” that interests them. National research and our own data have shown that both of these behaviors are important for our students’ success.
In previous years, all we could do was demonstrate a relationship between these behaviors and a sense of belonging on campus. But now that we can link our pre-college survey with the midyear freshman survey, we can add a potentially important personal disposition to the mix. This measure is a three-item scale called Comfort with Social Interaction that asks students to indicate their level of comfort meeting new people and interacting in a large, unfamiliar social setting. Thus, the goal of this analysis was to see if, even after accounting for acclimating behaviors (talking to professors and joining student organizations), this personal disposition continued to impact students' sense of belonging on campus.
First, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale produced a significant positive effect (in a statistical sense) on the number of professors that freshmen talked to outside of class. In other words, students who were less comfortable with social interaction were significantly less likely to talk to their professors than were those students with high Comfort with Social Interaction scores. This finding held even after controlling for gender (because we know that female students tend to seek out professors more often than their male counterparts).
Second, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale also produced a statistically significant positive effect on the likelihood that a student had begun participating in a student organization that interested them. Put another way, students with lower Comfort with Social Interaction scores were significantly less likely to have begun participating in a student organization that interested them.
Finally, we investigated whether the Comfort with Social Interaction score might influence a freshman's sense of belonging on campus even after taking into account whether or not he or she had joined a student organization. Sure enough, even after accounting for joining a student organization, the Comfort with Social Interaction produced a statistically significant positive effect. In fact, our analysis found that the degree of discomfort with social interaction (i.e., a low score on the above scale) could ultimately produce a larger negative impact on a sense of belonging on campus than simply not belonging to a student group.
Both of these findings hold important implications. The impact of a student's comfort with social interaction on the number of professors he or she talked to outside of class is important because it suggests that simply inviting students to faculty office hours may not be enough, especially if the students who might benefit most from such interactions are also more introverted.
This may well mean that those students need some incentive to initiate such an interaction and "break the ice." Although we often infer that students who don't come to office hours are less engaged in the course, this may well be a mistaken conclusion. In addition, this finding might even translate to the nature of student participation in class discussion.
Indeed, there seem to be multiple instances in our interactions with freshmen where we may unintentionally pathologize introversion. In talking about these findings with some of our student affairs staff members, they reflected on how often residence hall employees or peer mentors might worry about students because they don't see them as often hanging out in common areas.
While it is possible that these students may be struggling, it is also true that they may simply prefer environments with fewer people. Pressing these students to participate in activities that aren't comfortable for them may well simply contribute to a sense of isolation and marginalization. It may even be that our goals for freshman orientation don't fully take into account the needs of our more introverted students at a time when they probably need us to show that we welcome them into our community on their own terms.
Too often first-year fall orientations are designed to acclimate and integrate through a cacophony of social events, activity fairs, and big tent welcome parties. Of course we can point to an overwhelming body of research touting the importance of involvement and engagement. But the way that we try to make this involvement happen across all students no matter their extroverted or introverted nature my well hinder as much as it helps, even though our hearts are surely in the right place.
Collectively, these findings have made a number of us at my institution wonder if our efforts to encourage student involvement and embrace an active learning environment may have unintentionally created subtle yet real obstacles for our more introverted students. While this evidence is nowhere close to smoking-gun proof of a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students, it suggests that we might be smart to take a hard look at our own approach.
Based on your own observations or experience, might you or your institution subtly privilege extroverts? What do we do to make sure that more introverted students have the support necessary to acclimate -- even if it takes them longer to do so? How might we make our community more welcoming to all students regardless of their comfort with social interactions? Like a lot of things in higher ed, helping this students succeed starts with recognizing that there might be a problem.