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 the vast majority of their energy parsing students by demographic traits. Far fewer studies explore whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students. Today I want to describe some new findings from our own Augustana data regarding more introverted students. I think these findings are worth considering seriously if we are going to ensure that all students are given an equal opportunity to feel like they belong on campus.
Two items in the mid-year 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.” We know acclimation is important because students who don’t acclimate to Augustana tend to feel like they don’t fit in and then are much more likely to struggle, leave, or both. And we know about the connection between acclimation and a sense of belonging because we also ask freshmen in the mid-year survey about the degree to which they feel like they belong on campus. In addition to a host of research findings that lay out the positive relationship between acclimation, fit, and student success, our analysis has produced similar findings in each of the last several years.
But now that we have been able to link the Student Readiness Survey (data collected in the summer prior to enrollment) with the mid-year freshman survey (data collected at the end of winter term), 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. So 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 statistically 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 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 seem to hold important implications independently. 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 seem to pathologize introversion. In talking about these findings with some of the Student Affairs administrators, they reflected on how often residence hall staff or peer mentors might worry about students who they don’t see 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 too.
Taken together, these findings make me wonder if we have unintentionally created a culture at Augustana that privileges extroverts and makes it more difficult for introverts to find a niche. I’ve had several conversations in the last year or two with faculty from disciplines that stereotypically enroll “less socially adept” individuals about their own senior survey data that hints at a lack of a “space” for those students on our campus.
I’m no where close to having some sort of smoking gun proof of such a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students. However, I think this is an issue that is worth considering more seriously. So I would ask you, based on your own observations or experience might we 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?
Make it a good day,