Dr. Staci Johnson shares how her prompts for self-reflection and group discussion help personalities of all types engage in complex classroom interaction.
Associate Professor of Biology and Coordinator of Biology Program,Southern Wesleyan University
PhD in Engineering and Science Education, MS in Animal Physiology, BS in Animal Science
Until a few years ago, Staci Johnson, PhD, focused mainly on group-based learning in courses such as Introduction to Biology, Animal Science, Bioethics, and Microbiology. But when her daughter (an introvert) began college, Johnson began to question the fairness of her approach.
She discovered that, while group-based learning has been proven effective at inspiring many students to engage in critical thinking and collaboration, it can actually impede learning for some students—particularly those on the quieter side. In fact, according to researchers, the amount of working memory being used (aka cognitive load) is different for introverted students in a group activity. For them, a majority of mental energy is spent on the social interaction itself, whereas their people-loving peers are able to focus mostly on the lesson at hand.
“I want all students to love biology as much as I do,” says Johnson. “That’s why I want to do things in the classroom that enrich their enjoyment and boost their engagement levels.”
Today, to better support all students, Johnson incorporates classroom strategies that are preferred by both types of students. Specifically, this involves a combination of self-reflection and guided discussion—each of which appeals to one camp while forcing the other to build new skills.
“I make it clear to all of my students that I value them—whether they are more introverted or extroverted—and that I know they have something valuable to offer,” she says.
Below, Johnson shares more details on her philosophy and how she puts it into practice in her classroom.
“Students will talk to me about being an introvert or extrovert. As a teacher, when I take those comments seriously, the students respond by trusting me more. This has paved the way for so many great working relationships between my students and me.”
-Staci Johnson, PhD
Course: Biol 3313 Bioethics
Course description: A study of the ethical dilemmas posed by human effect on the environment at large and those encountered in medical practice.
Johnson’s tips for engaging all personality types
One of Johnson’s sources of inspiration is Kimberly Tanner’s report in the journal CBE Life Sciences Education, entitled “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” In particular, she likes this excerpt: “Equity, then, is about striving to structure biology classroom environments that maximize fairness, wherein all students have opportunities to verbally participate, all students can see their personal connections to biology, all students have the time to think, all students can pose ideas and construct their knowledge of biology, and all students are explicitly welcomed into the intellectual discussion of biology.”
Below, she shares how she brings this philosophy to life in her classroom.
Discuss the need for balance and for pushing one’s limits
Johnson says there has long been a cultural bias regarding extroverts and introverts in the classroom: While introverts are often told that they need to build up group skills such as presenting and collaborating, extroverts are rarely told they need to get better at silent reflection and solo work (she cites “An Introvert’s Perspective” (Beckerson, Anderson, Perpich, Yoder-Himes, Journal of College Science Teaching, 2020) as one such example). In Johnson’s classes, both groups are expected to stretch their limits and try to become more comfortable at the skills that come less easily to them. She does make it clear, up front, that her intent is not to change their personality—rather, she wants to help them become more well rounded.
Build self-reflection into every classroom activity
Johnson says she has noticed that the class introverts put more effort into class discussions and group work when they have had the benefit of time to reflect beforehand. And when extroverted students are required to do so, Johnson has seen the class discussions become richer and more focused, and therefore more productive. This is especially helpful with a topic such as bioethics, which often engenders passionate and complex debates, she adds.
Some of the self-reflective activities Johnson has adopted include:
- Having students write down their own thoughts prior to engaging in an assigned group activity.
- Giving students time to read through prior notes to see if there are unanswered questions that Johnson can help them address.
- Taking a timeout during a class discussion when the debate becomes too heated: Johnson asks students to take a few minutes to process what is happening.
- Asking learners to work individually (and silently) to summarize the day’s notes in their notebooks after a lecture on a complex topic.
Use thought-provoking prompts to generate balanced discussions
Over the years, Johnson has adopted a few strategies for more closely managing classroom discussions, which benefits both introverts and extroverts. This includes stopping the extroverts from always having the first word (so that they learn to formulate their thoughts clearly) and making sure the introverts join in the conversation (by giving them the time they need to collect their thoughts). Her main strategy for keeping things on track is to prepare a series of specific, thought-provoking prompts in advance.
For example, in her Bioethics class, Johnson will often prompt students to either defend or oppose the position the class discussed. If the day’s lecture was about vision enhancement—from common methods like glasses and contacts to futuristic technologies like a cyborg eye—she might offer this prompt: “Should someone be allowed to remove their perfectly healthy eye to replace it with a cyborg eye?” She asks students to provide their own opinions, as well as to review the issue through the lens of specific, articulated theories (such as Kantian ethics or utilitarianism). Because the research and the lecture have given students a good frame of reference, nearly all of them tend to find something to say, including the quieter ones. And the extroverts realize that sometimes by listening to others first, they may hear something that never would have occurred to them.
Ultimately, because Johnson provides a forum for the introverts and extroverts to be heard and respected, all skill levels rise. Their mutual respect forms the basis for better class interactions, which Johnson says often leads to richer relationships throughout their college experience.