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A Portrait of the Quiet Student

By Chelsea Petree
Parent Program Assistant Director

Introduction
Characteristics of Introverts/Extroverts
Parents' Role
Transitions
Social Support
Quiet Students as Successful Students
Roommates and Friends
Clubs and Organizations
On Campus Resources
Off Campus Resources

Introduction

While the typical image of a college student might be the outgoing student leader, the outspoken scholar in the classroom, or the enthusiastically vocal sports fan, the reality is that a campus full of extroverted students would be a headache! Colleges and universities benefit greatly when their students have a balance of personalities, learning styles, and backgrounds. This includes having a mix of students who are introverted, extroverted, and those who exhibit a mix of both characteristics.

Defining personalities: It is important to keep in mind that introversion and extroversion are on a continuum, and people do not fall neatly into one category or another. An individual can be on different ends of the spectrum in various situations or during different times in their lives. Although we recognize there is a distinction between shyness and introversion, we use both terms here, as well as other descriptions such as “less outgoing,” “quiet,” and “reserved.” None of the terminology related to introverts and extroverts should be regarded as negative, but simply as character traits. In fact, as the following chart shows, both personalities have positive qualities:

Characteristics of Introverts/Extroverts

Introverts

Extroverts

Talk less

Talk more

Reflect before acting

Prefer to take action quickly

Like to be quiet

Enjoy lots of activity

Like to work independently or with small groups

Prefer group work and interactive projects

Excel at focusing for long periods of time

Respond well to competition

 

The social, academic, and personal challenges of college are shared by all students, but where a student lies along the spectrum of extroversion and introversion might affect how he or she faces those challenges. For example, the stress of the college admission process, transitions to a new environment, the different teaching and learning styles of college-level classes, and the concept of living in close quarters with a roommate may be intimidating to all students, but they probably seem more worrisome to college-bound students who are, by nature, reserved.

Parents’ Role

Whether your student is reserved, outgoing, or somewhere in between, you may be the first resource he or she turns to when questions and problems arise. Today’s students tend to turn toward, rather than away from, their family for advice, and when they come to you with questions, they usually do not resent your input. A survey of college freshman in 2007 found that students felt their parents were involved the right amount, or even less than the students preferred, in choosing college activities.

Often parents worry that their reserved student will be unwilling to confront problems or assert their rights when faced with conflicts. It’s common for parents to call the University on their student’s behalf, saying, “My son is the quiet type, and he won’t say anything, but he’s really frustrated with his roommate.” Or, “My daughter thinks her professor made a mistake grading her mid-term, but she’s not the kind of student who would ever come right out and confront a teacher.”

Whether or not a student is comfortable asserting his position, it is important that students recognize their personal characteristics and how that affects their responses to situations. It is equally important that students learn methods for addressing the issues they face now and in the future. Typically students, even the quiet ones, are fully able to weigh their options and make a plan to respond based on what is most comfortable for them. Your student’s solution might not be the one that you prefer, but the steps he or she takes toward some kind of resolution are indicators of growth and progress.

Transitions

Shyness can affect how individuals cope with transitions and may result in slightly slower adaptation to college. The campus environment itself can increase shyness in new students, simply because it is an unfamiliar setting. Facing new situations has the potential to increase anxiety, nervousness, and hesitation. Feelings of shyness are more closely related to interactions with new people, not with long-time friends, family, or acquaintances. Consequently, less outgoing students can be more reluctant than their more social peers to let go of high school friendships. Shy students still make new friends in college. In fact, reserved and outgoing students tend to end up with about the same number of friends, but the quieter students may develop a peer network more slowly. Quieter students frequently start out their freshman year in college with slightly more contact with their parents and family members than their outgoing classmates, but the level of family contact decreases over the course of the year and ends up at about the same amount as other students by the end of the first year.

It is important to recognize that shyness or introversion are not at all the same as loneliness; in fact, any student can feel lonely at times, especially when the student first begins college. Studies of loneliness in college freshman have found that although most students (both extroverts and introverts) tended to report loneliness in the first term, they were no longer lonely at the end of their freshman year. Although initial loneliness tends to go away, you as a parent can help. Higher levels of parental support are related to lower levels of loneliness. Although introverts may prefer to be alone often, they are not lonely or anti-social. They just prefer limited but sincere interactions, and they often draw energy from their alone-time.

Social Support

Social support means having people, including friends and family, to turn to in times of need. Social support can mean emotional, physical, or informational support; it can come from a group or an individual; and it can be formal or informal. Any way it is provided, social support has been shown to reduce stress levels and provide a sense of belonging.

Extroverts are more likely to actively seek out social support to cope with problems. Outgoing students also appear to have a larger, more diverse network to provide social support, and they tend to use this support system more frequently than their more reserved classmates. However, extroverts did not report more satisfaction with the people in their network than quieter students. Further, extroverts have been found to be more stressed than introverts, despite their support systems. Those less outgoing students may appear to have a smaller social support network because this is what they’re comfortable with.

Quiet Students as Successful Students

Less outgoing students have significant strengths that contribute to their academic success. These include focus and concentration, good listening skills, and original thinking. However, there are some teaching and learning styles that can be more challenging for students who are more reserved. Group activities can be exhausting and not always rewarding for them. Class discussions and oral presentations do not fit with their preferred learning style. Quiet students don't like to participate in class and usually prefer to process ideas by thinking things over by themselves rather than by talking about them. They can find class participation quite annoying, especially if this is part of their final grade. If an introvert has something important to say, he will speak up, but otherwise, he probably prefers to listen and learn. Before speaking up in class, quiet students tend to spend time processing an idea, rehearsing what he wants to say, and preparing himself before offering the idea to the group.

Here are some tips for the introverted student in the classroom:

  • Students should meet with the professor and/or TA one-on-one during office hours. They can talk with the instructor about preferred learning styles and methods of communication. When students know their instructors outside of class, they will find it less difficult to talk to them during class.
  • They can study in the library or another quiet place on campus where they can be alone and concentrate without interruptions.
  • Even if it is uncomfortable, students should make the effort to participate in class discussion. They can start out small and let their confidence grow.
    • Students can speak at the beginning of class and reflect about something from a previous class period. This gives the student a chance to think it over and process thoughts. They should not be afraid to go back to a topic that was discussed earlier if there is something to add.

Roommates and Friends

Being assigned to live with an outgoing, social roommate can be a source of potential conflict for a quiet, reserved student. Introverts and extroverts view the purpose of their residence hall room differently. While a less outgoing student sees the room as a home and a private place, her roommate may see the room as a place to crash between social activities—or even the place to continue those activities. Quiet students want their room to feel safe and relaxed, while the socialite may see the space as a scene for entertaining. Quiet students do not want their roommates to bring the social world into their home, and an extrovert is disappointed when her roommate doesn’t welcome social opportunities.

Changing rooms is not always an option, and it may not be the best decision. Even though two students may appear to be exact opposites, they have the potential to become respectful roommates or even good friends. Parents can encourage their student to discuss differences and boundaries with the roommate as soon as they become obvious. Here are some tips to start with:

  • Students can agree to keep movies and music on headphones unless both are explicitly watching or listening to it.
  • For phone calls, roommates can talk on their cell phone in the hallway or in other parts of the building where they won’t disturb others. If they remain in the room, they can avoid talking too loudly.
  • Students can ask their roommates not to make the room an entertainment center for groups of friends, especially not late at night. Bringing only a couple friends at a time into the room is probably acceptable. Asking permission, giving advance notice, or negotiating with roommates are the best ways to avoid problems.

It is also important for roommates to talk about quiet hours, study time, and sleeping habits. One U of M student explains how he and his roommate made negotiations:

“Both my roommate and I took the roommate agreement seriously. We both valued our academics so studying was the priority. Socializing came second and we would only have others over if we were both okay with it. Our sleeping schedules were very different but we were respectful of one another and tried to be quiet when the other was sleeping. We set 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. as our quiet hours.”

Another student had this to say about living with someone new:

“We talked it all out on the first couple days when we were nervous to meet each other—plus talking about our habits was a good conversation topic when we were still feeling each other out. We generally had similar habits. However, if something did bother us we just talked it out. Also, it’s important to respect each other’s space. For instance it’s probably not advisable to loudly talk on the phone while your roommate is trying to study for a test. Just go in the hall or take a walk while on the phone. Common courtesy was our policy and it totally worked. We didn’t fight once!”

Here are some additional strategies students suggested for a healthy roommate relationship:

  • Get to know your roommate by asking about likes and dislikes, discussing family and friends from home, talking about habits you see in one another, and making plans to do things together (without assuming that you need to do everything together!)
  • Understand the difference between conflicts and problems. Conflicts generally are an incompatibility between two people related to specific topics, but they don’t have to be a problem. Problems are disagreements that need to be resolved. Conflicts can lead to problems if left unresolved. Parents can assist by helping students assess whether a difference can be resolved through communication.
  • Make a roommate contract
  • Learn to communicate effectively:
    • Talk to your roommate about issues that concern you.
    • Do not let petty grievances accumulate.
    • Be a good listener.
    • Try to understand the other person’s point of view.
    • Be assertive; not aggressive.
    • Think before you speak.
    • Use “I” messages; say things like, “Here’s what I see” and “Here’s what I think” rather than “You do this” and “You treat me like that.”
  • Understand compromise. Instead of trying to ‘win’ the argument, look for solutions that meet everybody’s needs. There may be a new solution that satisfies both people. This is much more effective than one person getting what they want at another’s expense.
  • Seek mediation when problems come up. The community adviser, residence hall director, or other staff can be helpful.

In the college environment, it can take more time to find other quiet and introspective students than to meet outgoing students. Quiet students are not unfriendly, though, and they may turn out to be the best friends a student will find on campus. Students can look for people who:

  • Avoid the party scene or, at a party, spend most of their time talking to just one or two others.
  • Spend much of their time in the evening and on weekends studying or doing things alone or in small groups.
  • Are quiet and try to blend in.
  • Prefer to listen rather than speak out in groups.
  • Seem to take their studies seriously.

Finally, students should push themselves to try new experiences without going too far out of their own comfort zone. An introverted student offers this advice:

“In my experience you cannot use shyness as an excuse or a crutch. If you are shy like I was, you just have to suck it up and practice being outgoing. It’s generally pretty easy because everyone else wants to make friends too!”

Clubs and Organizations

As parents, you can encourage your college student to get involved with student groups. On college campuses (especially ones as large as the University of Minnesota), there are countless options of clubs, organizations, and activities to join. These can include volunteering, athletics, academics, music, and leadership opportunities. There is a group—and usually a position within each group—to fit every personality type and student. Getting involved on campus provides experience in an area of interest and can help your student find their niche in the University. Joining a group is also an excellent way to meet other students with similar interests, and these interests can serve as icebreakers when making new friends. See the Student Unions and Activities website for a list of current student groups at the University of Minnesota.

If the sheer number of student groups is intimidating and confusing, students can stop in the Student Activities Office in Room 126, Coffman Memorial Union, for assistance.

On Campus Resources

Housing and Residential Life Guidebook—Getting along with your roommate(s).

Student Unions and Activities—With Student Unions & Activities, students and the campus community connect to convenient services, entertainment, dining options, meeting and event spaces, involvement opportunities and more. Room 126 Coffman Memorial Union.

Student Groups Listing

Off-Campus Resources

The Introvert’s Corner—Psychology Today is a site designed to provide easily accessible informing on emotional well being without confusion or stigma. The Introvert’s Corner is one of several blog pages dedicated to the unique lives of introverted people.