Breaking the Ice with Your Students

With the beginning of the semester just around the corner, many instructors are strategizing about how best to start productive classroom conversations. Students who speak even briefly at the beginning of a class meeting are more likely to participate in discussions going forward, and a well-chosen icebreaker can help everyone join in. As quick, low-stakes, and often fun activities that involve students at the beginning of a session, icebreakers can be a good way to learn about who's in the classroom, reduce anxiety, and engage all students in thinking together about course content.  

CRLT provides examples of icebreakers and guidance for using them in the Handbook on Departmental GSI Development. We also recently polled our Graduate Teaching Consultants (GTCs) to gather a list of their favorites. Here are some good ideas we received when we asked the GTCs to "tweet" us a particularly effective icebreaker they have used, seen, or heard about:

  • Write a key term from the course title on the board and have students write, then share, a sentence about the first idea it brings to mind for them. 
  • In pairs: students conduct interviews (these might focus on their experience with course topics). They introduce one another.
  • Ask a quirky question about preferences: What do you like to eat on toast? What's your favorite mode of transportation? What month do you enjoy most and why?
  • Find pennies from recent years and have each student pull one out of a cup and tell a story from that year of her/his life.
  • Small groups: find one thing you all have in common, one thing none of you have in common.
  • Around the room: tell us your name and something interesting or memorable about your name.
  • Each student writes down a unique fact or story about themselves; everyone draws a fact out of a pile then circulates, trying to find the person who wrote it. 
  • Students empty their backpacks, keeping with them anything they don't want others to see; everyone goes to a stranger's pile of stuff and writes a profile of them.

Whatever the icebreaker, make sure you offer students some choice about what and how much to share about themselves. Icebreakers are a great way to help students start making meaningful connections with one another, but students will be more comfortable participating in your class if they feel control over the information they are disclosing. 

Follow this link for additional resources about planning the First Days of Class. And keep in mind that icebreakers can be a great strategy throughout the semester. 

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