Introverts as learners: They are more common than you think!

I can't tell you how often I have said to students; they need to be in a study group. I suspect you have too.

I recently read an interesting New York Times Bestseller book by Susan Cain titled "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking." The focus of this book was to explore the nature of introverts as they navigate a society focused on extroverts. According to Cain, at least one-third to one-half of people we know are introverts. Yet, the American culture has exalted, encouraged, and supported extroverted behavior over the last century. Unfortunately, this leaves introverts sometimes seen as less than others because they choose to listen instead of speak, prefer to work or be alone, value solitude, and are quiet. Cain shows how our culture has come to undervalue introverts and provides evidence of teachers' and education's role in this belief.

What particularly spoke to me from an educator's perspective is how introverts learn. It is common practice in PA education to encourage students to become part of a study group. We believe students need to integrate the cognitive knowledge they are amassing, process it, and be able to articulate and communicate it with patients, preceptors, colleagues, supervising physicians and others about health and disease matters. However, there are two critical issues at play here that should be considered. First, I would venture to guess most of us, myself included, have recommended a student get into a study group, especially if they are struggling. And I would further guess that many of us have heard this response: "I study better alone." Enter the introverted learner. Until reading this book, I hadn't considered that this response could be signally this student is more introverted. So, I must confess I am an introvert, and when I was in PA school or at any time in my formal educational experiences, I studied alone. Groups just didn't work for me. And doing so didn't impede my ability to learn or be successful.

The other point to consider about study groups is that the nature, structure, and members of the group impact whether it is an effective one that actually helps students engage, learn, and uncover knowledge area deficits. For example, in my brief experience of trying to work with a student group as a student, I found the groups were more social than academic, or folks were supposed to come prepared but didn't. There was no formal structure set up, so half the time was spent deciding what to do.

While I continue to research introverts as learners, I believe there are a few salient points I can share. What becomes evident as I read more and reflect over my three decades in education is the undeniable shift within education to accommodate and encourage extrovert characteristics with an emphasis are social and collaborative learning. This focus means putting students in groups to work together. Evidence-based learning research supports that we are social beings and learn well in group dynamics (Immordino-Yang & Fischer, 2009; Sousa, 2000; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011, 2014). However,  the overwhelming message is that to be successful; you must be outgoing, gregarious, popular, and social. Introverts continue to be inaccurately labeled or judged because of their quiet nature. Cain clearly points out that being an introvert isn't the same as being shy. And it doesn't mean that introverts can't work effectively in groups. What it means is that, at times, they need solitude. They need time to work or study alone, and we need to support those students who tell us so. In fact, a 1993 study of college students by research psychologist K. Andres Ericsson found that students who study alone learn more over time than those who work in groups. Ericsson postulated that it is impossible to gain mastery in many fields without knowing how to work alone (Ericsson, K. A., Harwell, K. W., & Tesch-Romer, C. 1993). In addition, no correlation was found between students' tendency for verbal participation and their grades or overall grasp of the material (Cain, 2012; Condon & Ruth-Sahd, 2013). These concepts are further supported by a 2015 article by Davidson, Gillies & Pelletier, who looked at the introverted learner in medical education. The learners expressed frustration with feeling like misfits, the pressure to change their nature to be seen as worthy, and being judged as underperformers.  

With an estimated one-third to one-half of the population being introverts (Condon & Ruth-Sahd, 2013), we have e a lot of them in our classes. But don't be fooled. Many of us introverts have learned to appear as extroverts (Cain, 2012). So, the next time you consider recommending a student get into a study group, consider they may be an introverted learner who actually does do better studying alone. It may also be helpful to consider including educational activities in your class that use group dynamics but also require students to work on their own before coming together in a group or provide some time for quiet reflection or individual work (Cain, 2012; Condon & Ruth-Sahd, 2013; Davidson, Gillies & Pelletier, 2015). In a current society and educational atmosphere that supports, rewards, and encourages extrovert behaviors, having quiet, alone work time can benefit all.    Also, consider providing your students guidance for effective study groups at the start of each year, semester, or quarter, in addition to not over-emphasizing that it is necessary. We don't want a student showing up at a study group but getting nothing out of it. We need to give them the information to create effective groups and the ability to make an informed decision as to whether or not that group is helping them learn.


Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. Crown Publishers.

Cain, S (2012). The Power of Introverts. Ted Talk

Ericsson, K. A., Harwell, K. W., and Tesch-Romer, C (1993) Deliberate Practice and Proposed. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychology Review. 100. 363-406 doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.87.3.215

Condon, M., & Ruth-Sahd, L. (2013). Responding to introverted and shy students: Best practice guidelines for educators and advisors. Open Journal of Nursing, 3,503-515.

Davidson, B., Gillies, R. A., & Pelletier, A. L. (2015). Introversion and medical student education: challenges for both students and educators. Teaching and learning in medicine27(1), 99–104.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Fischer, K. W. (2009). Neuroscience bases of learning. In V. G. Aukrust (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd Edition, Section on Learning and Cognition. Oxford, England: Elsevier.

 Sousa, D. A. (2011). How the brain learns (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


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