I can always tell on the first day of class whether it’ll be a winner or a dud. If the teacher makes a good impression, it’ll be great. If not, well … if it ain’t good, then it ain’t gonna get better (Student quoted in Friedrich and Cooper 1999, 287).
Because so much housekeeping is required on the first day of class, incorporating icebreakers may seem like a waste of time. In addition to reviewing the syllabus and course requirements, the first day of class sets the tone for the course and provides an opportunity for students to get to know each other and the instructor (Gaffney and Whitaker 2015, Anderson, McGuire, and Cory 2011). Activities on the first day of class build student expectations and can create conditions for increased student learning, motivation, and even higher course grades (Wilson and Wilson 2007, McGinley and Jones 2014). Yet students report little interest in icebreakers (Perlman and McCann 1999), perhaps because icebreakers are often unrelated to course content. A well-designed icebreaker directly related to course objectives and the instructor’s teaching style provides an opportunity for students to get to know each other and the instructor, demonstrates what class will be like through the rest of the term, and introduces course content on the first day of class. An effective first day of class will not simply tell students about course requirements, but will give students an opportunity to experience a snapshot of the rest of the term. To accomplish this, instructors can design icebreaker activities based on what they want to teach, how they want to teach it, and what role students will play in the learning experience.
Linking Icebreakers to Course Content
A good icebreaker links to learning outcomes, allowing instructors to introduce course material on the first day without a traditional lecture, about which students are ambivalent (Henslee, Burgess, and Buskist 2006). Instructors with labs can start lab work on the first day. If the lab work requires students to get information from each other to complete the tasks, students will get to know each other and may learn more (Shibley and Zimmaro 2002). Likewise, small groups of students in methods or evaluation classes can develop measures of quality while evaluating an object, such as an orange (Eyler 1994). Asking content-related provocative questions can allow students to get to know each other and create a community of learners (Zigmond 2008). A criminology instructor could ask students to discuss their knowledge and feelings about the death penalty. Classroom activities discussed in disciplinary teaching journals can be transformed into icebreakers to allow students to get to know each other through the content. Alternatively, Magnan (2005) provides many icebreakers that may be adapted to reflect course content.
Instructors should actively reflect on their teaching style and create opportunities to present that style to students through the icebreaker. Grasha (1994) provided one way to categorize teaching styles: expert, formal authority, personal model, facilitator, and delegator. An instructor may utilize all these teaching styles throughout the course, but it is likely that one style will dominate. To conduct the icebreaker activity, instructors should pick the teaching style that they will most heavily use throughout the course. In courses that are more likely to require lecture, the expert style may be most applicable. In this case, an instructor using a provocative or controversial question (Alicea and Kessel 1997) may begin by briefly defining relevant concepts before having students get to know each other through their responses to the question. The facilitator style highlights the importance of interpersonal interactions with students, guiding them towards deeper understanding without participating in the activity. A facilitator in a politics class could ask students to brainstorm terms they associate with democracy and students can get to know each other by collaboratively writing their own definition of democracy (Rosen 2016). In the personal model, which advocates teaching by example, an instructor using a bingo game filled with “I” statements relevant to course content would participate in the activity (Romena 2015). The delegator style emphasizes students’ ability to learn autonomously. Creating an experiment or demonstration icebreaker from which students draw their own conclusions works well with this style. The formal authority role emphasizes classroom order and compliance with classroom policies. An icebreaker in this style will allow students to learn classroom rules of conduct and course expectations, perhaps through a syllabus scavenger hunt where groups of students collaborate to find answers on the syllabus to questions such as, “what happens if I’m absent?” and “what happens if I text in class?”
The Student Role
Instructors should also think through their expectations for student engagement, designing an icebreaker where students embody their expected role. Instructors may have a variety of expectations for students, often explicitly reflected in writing or presentation assignments. Instructors also often have implicit expectations for “good students,” such as being able to question their assumptions, ask questions of their own volition, or bring in material from other courses. If students will be expected to facilitate discussions or give a presentation, students could present what they’ve learned about their fellow students through the icebreaker. For writing-intensive courses, students could write a six-word memoir (Simmons and Chen 2014) as a way of introducing themselves to other students. To make implicit expectations about the student role explicit, students could brainstorm characteristics of an “ideal student” and the instructor could point out which are most applicable.
In sum, thinking through the course objectives, teaching style, and expectations of students can help instructors design icebreakers that accomplish multiple goals on the first day of class, beyond reviewing the syllabus and course requirements.
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Eyler, J. 1994. “Orange you glad you explored evaluation first?” College Teaching 42 (2):62.
Friedrich, G. W., & P. Cooper. 1999. “The first day.” In Teaching communication: Theory, research, and methods, edited by Anita L. Vangelisti, John A. Daly & Gustav W. Friedrich, 287-296.
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