A few months back a saavy instructor, thinking ahead to fall classes, asked us about using icebreakers on the first day of class. What is an icebreaker? Essentially it is an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another.

As we talked to faculty and did some reading on icebreaker activities, it became clear thatFour ice cubes stacked against blue background there are two camps: those who like these exercises and think they provide value, and those who think they are off topic and a waste of time.

Why would you want to use an icebreaker? The Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College lists these benefits on their page of icebreaker activities:

  • Reduces both student and instructor anxiety prior to introducing the course.
  • Fosters in a powerful way both student-student and faculty-student interactions.
  • Creates an environment where the learner is expected to participate and the instructor is willing to listen.
  • Actively engage students from the onset.
  • Conveys the message that the instructor cares about getting to know the students.
  • It makes it easier for students to form relationships early in the semester so they can work together both in and out of class.

Given the number of ways these activities can benefit the class; it seems worth looking at whether there are ways to overcome concerns about applicability and usefulness to the course.

In the book Essentials of College and University Teaching: A Practical Guide by Eleanor Boyle and Harley Rothstein (ProActive Press, Vancouver, Canada, pp. 71-74), the authors suggest using icebreakers that incorporate course material. “This may seem difficult on the first day of class, when students haven’t even read chapter one. But students enter every discipline, no matter how exotic, with ideas, preconceptions, information and misinformation. One exciting and motivating approach asks students to debate general interest questions relating the discipline.” The exercise involves creating three to six general-knowledge questions about the discipline at hand. These can be presented as true or false, shown with multiple choice answers, or made open ended for discussion. Students are asked to group themselves into pairs or threes. The instructor then projects the first question and asks the students to discuss and decide on an answer in their groups. After a few minutes, students are asked to vote on the correct answer – if clickers are being used this can be done electronically, but a show of hands will suffice. If the question is open-ended, the instructor can ask for responses from several groups. Time should be allowed for discussion or debriefing, but generally speaking, the activity should be fast paced; the advice is to move to the next question to keep the students focused. “The best questions for this exercise are relevant to your discipline but require no expert knowledge; they do not have obvious answers and potentially generate a variety of responses. Such questions pique student’ interest, expose them to different opinions, and allow them to anticipate issue that will emerge throughout the course.”

From the Teaching Professor blog at the website Faculty Focus come two posts on icebreakers that can be used to create “a climate of learning” in the classroom. The first is called A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts. At the minute the class is supposed to begin, the instructor arrives with a box packed with about 15 random, preferably unrelated objects. The box is placed on a table at the front of the room, then the instructor unpacks each item and places it on the table. Once all the items are unpacked, they are returned to the box in the same order. Then the students are asked to take out a piece of paper and write down as many of the objects as they can remember. The author, Virginia Freed, writes: “Interesting things begin to happen here, and I can make some immediate points about classroom expectations. Students sitting in the back of the room have not been able to see the items on the table. The point? Sit as close to the front of the room as possible. Some students have been engaged in conversations and did not see me or the box. The point? Pay attention right from the beginning of the class; professors often offer the most interesting and important information at the beginning and ending of class. Some students come in late. The point? Arrive on time. Some students don’t have anything to write with or on. The point? Come prepared. We discuss all this with humor, but the inferences are clear.” The process can be repeated in several ways that will help students understand concepts relating to content mastery.

Another post from the same website, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning, by Maryellen Weimer, shares four first day activities that “…emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.” One of these, called Syllabus Speed Dating, helps ensure that your students are not only “…acquainted with each other, [but is] a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.”

For more icebreaker suggestions see the list of 32 activities posted by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College and a long list  provided by the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of New Mexico.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

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