miércoles, 9 de marzo de 2016

Does shyness inhibit learning?

By Flor de María Vila A.

When we teachers think of the ideal attitude of students in the classroom, probably the first desire that comes to our mind is to be blessed with students who are collaborative, outgoing, and eager to interact with other students, since this way our work will be easier and the pupils will have more opportunities to learn. But, what about shy students?  Will they have the same chance?


There are many definitions. One of them is Buss´s (1985) who defined shyness as an inhibition of expected social behavior, together with feelings of tension and awkwardness. This delineation regards shyness as a social phenomenon, and a form of social anxiety. Another scholar defines it as an excessive self-focus characterized by negative self-evaluation which creates discomfort and/or inhibition in social situations and interferes with pursuing one's interpersonal or professional goals.  

Regarding our everyday context in classes, we could say that somehow part of our students show these traits: they are shy students. They are self-conscious and lack confidence when they must face new or socializing situations or when the focus is placed on them. They may eventually become socially rejected and subsequently develop low self-esteem or worsen their current low self-esteem.  This is not beneficial for the learning process at all.


Shyness has multiple causes. Some can be handled by teachers; some cannot. With regard to what we, as teachers, can and should do, we need to be aware of the emotions that are hindering our students´ full involvement in the learning process. We need to identify what are those obstacles that do not allow students to take advantage of the opportunities they have to improve their performance and learning. It is necessary to identify the barriers that do not match with the way students are expected to learn.

According to studies, shyness is not related to intelligence; however, the “display” (evidence) of their intelligence is expected to show in the classroom in some pre-fixed ways according to the teaching method used. For instance, many times teachers’ perception of students who never raise their hands in class is that they are less competent. Not volunteering themselves to give an answer when the teacher asks questions to activate previous knowledge may be a symptom stemming from the “source” of the problem and not the problem itself.  For example, the reason for the scarce or non-existing  participation may be that they are afraid of making a mistake and won´t venture to say anything, even if they know the answer to the question asked. In that case, we should help them make sure that they have the right answer before sharing it with the whole class. We can do this when they work in pairs exchanging their answers. This would create a safer learning environment and procedure for shy students and would eventually help them gain confidence and motivate them to try other ways to improve their learning. 

Shy students need to understand that their inhibitions are natural and common and that it is natural to be exposed in some way when showing evidence of the use of the language; in the same manner, they should be aware that nothing or nobody is perfect, so everybody is “allowed” to make mistakes, and they should try again and again until, with the practice, they improve.


The communicative approach calls for real-life situations that demand communication. The teacher sets up a set of circumstances that students are likely to encounter in real life and in which learners communicate in meaningful ways about meaningful topics. Students are expected to interact frequently in order to practice and improve their performance.

Shy students find it extremely difficult to overcome the feeling of embarrassment whether because of low self-esteem or due to their tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, even if they are simulated. Alternatively, “shy” students may be just perfectionist students and won´t say a word unless they feel they are going to sound perfect both phonetically and grammatically. This last type of “shy” students monitor too much (correct) their utterances before expressing  them.

Shy students will also learn, but they may take a while to become aware of the importance of using the language more actively to accelerate their learning. As mentioned before, they need to be shown that they can do it and will work in a safe environment, an environment created by the teacher, an environment in which the teacher guides them little by little using scaffolding strategies to ensure their success.

By all means, teachers must take into account one of the most important foundations and tenets of teaching: know your students and be acquainted with their characteristics; even further, meditate how these individualities match with our teaching and how both merge to achieve our main goal: students´ language learning.

Have you identified the shy students in your classroom? 
Can you describe them for us please?
While you are delivering your class, what impasses does a student’s shyness introduce at the moment of developing the lesson? What actions can be helpful to solve such impasses?
What should never be done in these cases?

Further information
Kalustskaya, Irina N y otros (2014) Shy children in the classroom: From research to educational practice. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, Vol 1(2), Jun, 2015. Special Issue: How Psychological Science Can Help Improve Our Classrooms. pp. 149-157.

Flor de María Vila. M.A. in Cognition, Learning and Development from PUCP, B.A. in Education with a major in English Teaching. Ms. Vila is currently Pedagogic Advisor and Member of the Research Team at Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacífico and Academic Director of International Contacts (test training & foreign applications advisory). She is official Examiner for several University of Cambridge tests, freelance consultant with Universidad ESAN, experienced speaker on diverse English teaching issues for prestigious institutions, and senior international examinations trainer (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, IELTS).