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Psychology Behind Classroom Shyness: There’s an App for That!

It might be a genetic trait or caused by the environment in which we were raised. From understanding human behavior, we have found it could also be the result from personal experiences in our lives, even a traumatic one. It might just be part of our personality, and maybe we just lack the confidence or enthusiasm that others possess.

Whatever the reason, we’ve all experienced shyness at some point in our lives, and many people struggle with it as part of their everyday existence. Shyness can be described as feeling awkward or apprehensive when approaching or being approached by other people. Shy people often desperately want to interact with others around them, but they don’t know how or if they can tolerate the anxiety that comes along with it.

How shy are you? According to Psychology Today, 40-to-50% of Americans are somewhat shy, but the trait can become more symptomatic at certain stages of development than at others. For many college students who are meeting new people, facing new challenges and situations, shyness can become overwhelming and even harmful to the learning process.

Shyness can inhibit students from raising their hands, asking questions, and seeking help from the professor. These students often feel that they will be judged on their questions or on their answers, and they don’t want to appear silly or stupid. Students don’t want to waste their peers’ time with questions they think are not relevant or important to anyone else. Consequently, they settle for keeping quiet, and if they don’t understand the lecture, they are the ones who suffer the consequences.

Nevertheless, there could be good news out there for students who don’t like to participate in class. Liam Kaufman, psychologist from the University of Toronto, has developed a website called Understoodit.com where students can press a red “Confused” button when they don’t comprehend the lecture. The professor immediately receives a “Confusometer” message on his or her laptop that indicates what percentage of the students are “stumped.” The professor explains the lesson again, and if students catch on the second time around, they click on the green “Understood” button on the app. When the “Understandometer” lights up on the professor’s laptop, everyone understands the lecture. All users are anonymous.

What’s the other good news about the app? It could also help students who don’t speak English as their first language, plus it works through a browser right on students’ cell phones, laptops, or tablets.

However, many critics are wondering if this app will solve the problem. Will it truly help students struggling with class participation or could it be just another way for professors and shy students to avoid human contact? Some say it’s just too easy, calling it spoon-feeding or coddling students who don’t want to make the extra effort to get the help they need, not only with their school work and class participation, but also for their shyness.

Still, many professors support the application, citing examples of students they could have helped sooner if they had known there was a problem understanding the lecture. Paul Gries, University of Toronto science computer professor, already tried the application with students, and he’s ready to use it next year. “I spend a ton of time asking students to ask stupid questions to make sure they understand — I even have a Stupid Question period once a month — but we’re often three-quarters through the term before some will admit they’re lost,” noted Gries. “I wish they had told me on Day One, but this app may help them do that.”

Right now many students are missing out on many opportunities to get a good education and prepare for their future all because of their shyness. Many supporters believe that if this app can lure them out of their shells long enough to ask questions and participate in class, however slightly, then professors should get on board and give it a try.