Teaching human sexuality courses: Does it matter if students are extroverts or introverts?

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network
Content Area
Human Sexuality

One of my professional roles over the last decade or so has been that of "faculty developer." In that role, my favorite task has been to facilitate small faculty groups as they discuss the merits and immediate applications of a newly touted book with implications for teaching and learning. During a recent opportunity to carry out such a task, the book focused upon was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Though the book has had its critics, it has also received considerable acclaim and readership. Any reader unfamiliar with the book need only plug in the author's name and the title of the book in order to find links to synopses, reviews, discussion questions, self-assessments, a teacher's guide, radio interviews and a TED talk featuring the author. The following is a brief overview provided in the online teacher's guide (Treadway & Treadway, 2014, pg. 2).

In Part I of this book, we encounter the ways our society tends to favor extroverts, the historical origins of this bias, and its embodiment in many of our most celebrated political, educational, and cultural institutions. We examine the ways cultural assumptions about the putative advantages of extroverted leadership are often unsupported by scientific evidence and uncover many situations in which the leadership approaches typically favored by introverts are more effective, as exemplified by introverted visionaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks. In Part II, we review some of what is known about the biological basis of introversion and extroversion and how the interactions between biological predispositions and environmental factors shape the trajectory of who we become. In Part III, we consider the perspective of cultures that do not emphasize the extrovert cultural ideal and some of the advantages of a cultural bias toward introversion. And lastly, in Part IV, we examine ways introverts and extroverts can work effectively in comfortable and collaborative relationships, communicate and understand one another, develop friendships and intimate relationships, and live together as members of the same family.

When reviewers assess syllabi submitted for CFLE Academic Program Review (APR) purposes, one facet of analysis is the degree to which the textbook(s) and other required or supplemental readings evidence a scholarly foundation. As an author, Cain appears to have researched her topic as she documents her references in 46 pages of notes. Quiet could provide worthy supplemental content for family science students in a number of contexts. For example, the impact of both nature and nurture on temperament or disposition to be introverted or extroverted could be incorporated into courses addressing the Human Growth and Development across the Lifespan content area. Courses attending to the Parent Education and Child Guidance content area could cover best practices of parenting introverted or extroverted children in today's world. The Interpersonal Relationships content area would be a prime place to focus on appreciating individual differences with regard to the introversion-extroversion continuum and using that understanding to communicate and resolve conflicts more effectively in relationships with family members, coworkers, clients, friends and neighbors.

Sensitivity to others, in order to enhance educational effectiveness, is a competency for family life educators identified within the Family Life Education content area. Competent family life educators know and understand their audience. Their learners vary with regard to temperament and preferences for processing ideas and sharing their insights with others. Competent family life educators are aware of their own disposition and work to keep their bias for introversion or extraversion in check as they plan and implement opportunities for student learning. Additionally, the strengths of both introversion and extroversion in the context of leadership in public policy arenas would be suitable for discussion in courses addressing the Family Law and Public Policy content area.

The theme of this issue of Network is Sexuality Education and, thus, I want to explore implications some of the main ideas Susan Cain puts forward in Quiet have for designing and delivering instruction addressing the Human Sexuality content area (IV). As a refresher, the Handbook for Academic Program Review Application states the following with regard to this content area:

IV. Human Sexuality

Content: An understanding of the physiological, psychological, and social aspects of sexual development across the life span, so as to achieve healthy sexual adjustment.

e.g., Research and theories related to: Reproductive Physiology; Biological Determinants; Emotional and Psychological Aspects of Sexual Involvement; Sexual Behaviors; Sexual Values & Decision-Making; Family Planning; Physiological & Psychological Aspects of Sexual Response; Influence of Sexual Involvement on Interpersonal Relationships.

Practice—A CFLE is prepared to:

  1. Recognize the biological aspects of human sexuality
    1. sexual functioning
    2. reproductive health
    3. family planning
    4. sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  2. Recognize the psycho-social aspects of human sexuality
    1. characteristics of healthy & ethical sexual relationships
    2. interpersonal dynamics of sexual intimacy
    3. risk factors (e.g., substance abuse, social pressures, media)
  3. Address human sexuality from a value-respectful position

As has been mentioned in previous columns in CFLE Network, one purpose of these curriculum guidelines is to provide a foundation for faculty as they design or redesign a course to fulfill each content area. According to D.L. Fink, course design processes involve formulating course objectives and student learning outcomes; identifying the nature and scope of crucial content; determining the best ways to deliver instruction and at what pace; selecting reading and other resource materials; developing meaningful learning activities for students (both in and out of the classroom); and devising various methods and tools for measuring students' mastery of relevant knowledge and skills (2003). A syllabus is a document of primary importance for a course in that it outlines all of the design features the instructor has carefully chosen.

Though topics and concepts related to human sexuality are increasingly discussed with greater openness and comfort in educational settings, many students continue to perceive them to be quite value-laden, personal, and emotionally and psychologically sensitive in nature. As a result, they are often more reserved in their dialogue on this subject. When posing questions for discussion in a face-to-face environment, instructors would be wise to allow plenty of time for students, extroverts and certainly introverts, to reflect upon and carefully formulate their answers. Students predisposed to introversion will likely appreciate being able to share answers with just a few fellow students, with only the instructor, or perhaps keep the answer entirely to him or herself. Use of audience response systems or clickers to pose questions to students allows them, particularly introverted ones, to maintain some anonymity. Online discussions seem to provide a degree of pseudo-anonymity that some students prefer.

When assessing syllabi for APR review purposes, another facet reviewers pay attention to is the variety of meaningful learning activities the instructor has designed for students, as well as the variety of means of assessing student learning the instructor has devised. Collaborative group/team work increasingly occurs in today's workplaces and, thus, it is appropriate for instructors to call upon students to process course content and demonstrate learning via group project work. Susan Cain suggests in her book that such collaborative work happens in excess, to the point of neglecting the innovative and creative outcomes that can result from quiet, solitary examination and reflection particularly on part of introverted employees/students, but also among those who are extroverted.

Referencing numerous studies, Cain (pgs. 87-92) exposes as myth the assumption that group brainstorming is effective. (She notes one exception: group brainstorming done online.) Such phenomenon as social loafing, production blockage, and evaluation apprehension minimize fruitful outcomes in face-to-face situations. Cain does not advocate dispensing with group work altogether. Indeed, she sees the benefits, even for introverts as this prompts them to stretch their talents in new ways. Group work can be appropriate in the context of a human sexuality course, though instructors should consider Cain's advice. She urges teachers (and employers) to design collaborative work experiences suitable for pairs or threesomes with structure that allows each participant to contribute in clearly delineated ways that will maximize their capabilities.

Consider reading Quiet, if you haven't already done so. Entice a colleague or two to read it as well. Maybe take in Cain's TED talk, too. With your colleagues, perhaps over coffee or lunch, jointly share your reactions, both affirming and critical, to the ideas and concepts put forward in the book. Reflect upon your own preferences for processing ideas and sharing insights with others. Assess your own disposition for introversion or extroversion and the impact that it has had on your personal and professional endeavors. Finally, take turns with your colleagues identifying some possible applications that would enhance the teaching and learning that goes on in your respective classrooms and develop some initial plans for future implementation.


Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Fink, D. L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Treadway, M.T., and Treadway, D. C. (2011). Teacher's Guide for Quiet. Retrieved January 6, 2014, from the Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts website: http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/teachers-guide/