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Note: I'm not an academic, but I had a student like this as a colleague while in high school (12-18 in a school for students with Asperger's)* myself and I think that this is a worthwhile subject to discuss.

Sometimes you have one or two REALLY shy students in a class with a small headcount. Students that never raise their hands in class, never ask questions, never notify that they have a problem,... The really severe cases will internally panic when you ask them a question and just shut down completely, not even making a sound or a response.

They aren't bad students, far from it. They make their assignments, score well on tests and succeed in the exercises. They just are REALLY passive in the classroom, to the point of almost starting to cry when the teacher asks them something. They also only have that problem in class: when they're among friends during non-class time, like lunch or break, they're quite open and talk rather freely.

As an example, the student from above was so shy that he couldn't introduce himself during the very first week. In the first 2 years, he couldn't give any public speeches, even after much encouragement from the teacher. You couldn't get any more than 2 consecutive words out of him. When the teacher addressed him because they wanted to involve him, he did the above mentioned shutdown, even after repeated encouragement. He loosened up somewhat over the years, but it was still such a surprise when he first willingly raised his hand (sometime in the 4th year), that he got a positive note in his weekly report just for that.

The problem is that it's not always immediately obvious if the student struggles with something. Sometimes, a student like this hopelessly fails an entire class because he didn't understand something from the first year and was too shy to ask for help.

What methods can a teacher use for students like this?


*While I mention a student from SEN education, this question also can apply to non-SEN students. And while this question mentions a high-school student (which I understand is not entirely on-topic in here), it also applies to higher education with smaller groups.

  • Perhaps such a student would be more comfortable asking questions online where it is not face-to-face and in front of an audience? – Bitwise Oct 13 '14 at 14:54
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    The easiest way to prevent singling out a person would be asking all the students to write a question down that they want addressed for next class (or if the questions are short enough, the current class) on a piece of paper. Putting students on the spot is counter-productive. When enough feedback has been given to give the question-asker confidence that his questions aren't "dumb" then you can pull back on the papers and then the student should be more willing to approach the issue verbally. – Compass Oct 13 '14 at 15:09
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    Regarding "Putting students on the spot is counter-productive," I meant shy students. They're more comfortable talking (or not) on their terms, and forcing them may invoke the negative response you don't want. – Compass Oct 13 '14 at 15:45
  • I was one of these students, so thank you for asking this question. Whenever a professor made an effort to reach out to students like me and involve us in the class, I always felt like I got a lot more out of it, but I had a hard time overcoming my internal hangups if the environment wasn't just right. – tsleyson Oct 26 '14 at 21:57
  • I am not sure if there is s good way (I myself struggle a lot with this problem), but i started to give out easy problems before lecture and give people 5-10 min to think about them. Then i solve them during lecture. Even if people not react,it gives them more time to think through the problems, and less pressure than a quiz. That made many students talk about it at least between each other, and I received much more clear reactions if they understand things or not. – Greg Mar 26 '17 at 8:16
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I think stating very clearly that you are available to answer questions (and not just while in class) like office hours or before/after class is important. Some students are more comfortable with email, make sure they know they have your email and that it's ok to use it. Give some positive reinforcement when students ask questions.

I teach graphic design so I don't have a lot of students (20 at most usually) and a lot of classroom time is dedicated to problem-based learning and most of my teaching is coaching. I go see every student to check how they're doing and ask if they have any questions. It's difficult for them to get their work criticized in front of everyone at first so I'll do small group meetings instead of whole class presentations.

I think most shy people can open up when they're around people they trust so I think establishing trust with the student as a teacher is crucial. You can make them work in small teams so they get to know each other better and build up slowly from there.

I don't think it's something you can fix in a single course so there is only so much you can do without affecting the whole classroom.

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I am a college student very similar to this. I absolutely love Piazza, a web tool that allows professors to create very functional online forums for classes- like Moodle forums, except they actually work. I've used this both in entirely online classes and in large lecture sections, and I find it tremendously valuable.

My favorite thing about it is that it gives the professor the option to allow students to ask/ answer questions anonymously. This is wonderful for asking questions that you think are stupid, which are usually the ones that need to be asked the most. Conversations I've had with other students (or with profs or TA's) on Piazza have saved my grades on many assignments.

Whether someone chooses to use Piazza or something else entirely, I heartily recommend enabling some kind of supervised online communication with (and among) your students. Not all of them will use it, but the ones that need it will be grateful.

EDIT: This isn't an advertisement. I don't know how to prove that, but can you recommend stylistic changes I could make to my response that would sound less like an ad?

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    Thanks for introducing that website. It is interesting indeed. – Enthusiastic Engineer Nov 4 '14 at 22:05
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    This answer sounds like an advert. – Boris Bukh Nov 5 '14 at 2:20
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When you pose a question, have students discuss their answer in pairs or small groups for a few minutes before you call on someone. Thus, students present the group's answer, not their own, so they feel less on the spot. Plus, answers tend to be better, and students have learned from the discussion. This is sometimes called Peer Instruction.

There are other proven techniques for having students work in small groups, too - see Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), etc.

Note that "shyness" can also be a cultural issue, not just an individual issue.

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Think also how you react to questions or answers from the bolder students. Even the stupid questions. While I was not "shutdown"-type of shy when I was younger, much of my participation depended on how the general atmosphere was.

If I had to fear that my question or answer would get negative reaction, I would not ask or answer voluntarily. Don't trust that students will know what is stupid question and what is not. Shy person might quite likely fear that his/her question is stupid or answer is wrong, even if it would not be. So if they have seen you react negatively to "legitimately" stupid question (and by reacting negatively I mean things like sighing or comments such as "I just explained this..." or similar type) they probably won't ask their question.

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One method that may work when nothing else does is to give the student a question you are going to ask in class, along with the answer, in advance. This can help the student focus on solving their participation problem because any subject matter difficulties are removed.

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I hand out poker chips. When the student has spoken they turn it in. Each student needs to contribute to the discussion as we are doing critiques of work. This helps me easily keep track of who hasn't spoken. The objective and expectation is clear to the student what is being demanded. I've been surprised by how well this works with very shy students. Holding the chip in your hand, helps with the anxiety, and you see you aren't the only one. These are post college students, mostly from foreign countries. More and more I see the tricks from elementary school work really well with adults.

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