College students aren’t the only ones who experience anxiety going back to school and heading into the first day of class. Professors are faced with all new classes, with some familiar faces but many unknowns. How can you use icebreakers to get to know your students?

While you can use some icebreaker ideas to watch your students interact and learn about them that way, there are also icebreakers designed to help you gain a better understanding of your students’ goals for the semester in a brief period—or designed to help them understand what to expect from your class starting from the first time they walk through your classroom door.

Handling your own anxiety

What’s the best way to break into your first back to school class experience? “Some teachers handle [first day of class] anxiety by postponing it, simply handing out the syllabus and leaving,” wrote Wilbert J. McKeachie in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips Fourteenth Edition. “This does not convey the idea that class time is valuable, nor does it capitalize on the fact that first-day excitement can be constructive.” (19)

One of the ways to get to know your students is just simple introduction: in a small classroom setting, McKeachie advised, you can have each college student give their name, where they’re from, and their major or concentration (or if they’re undeclared). You might ask each person to tell one surprising fact about themselves—something that their classmates wouldn’t expect. That type of detail not only gives you insight into the student, but also gives you an interesting fact to help you remember that student’s other information.

Icebreakers for the course

Some icebreakers can give you a good idea about what your students expect from the class, and what they’ve experienced in the past. These can be done as writing exercises, such as in an interest inventory, or by calling out things for you to write on a whiteboard, chalkboard, or projector.

  • Best/Worst Class. Have the students, without naming course or teachers, describe what the teacher did in the best or worst class they ever had, and what the students did in their best or worst class.
  • Interest inventory. This questionnaire is a writing drill for students to provide not only basic information about themselves, along with a few lighter icebreaker questions about music or movies, but also how they learn best, what they hope to learn in the course, or what an instructor did previously to help the student learn.
  • Memory recall. Bring a number of strange items to class in a shoebox. Take each item from the box one at a time as the students sit in their seats, and when each item is displayed, put them all back. Then ask the students to write down all the items they can recall. Virginia Freed wrote in “A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts” on Faculty Focus that by using this exercise “I can make some immediate points about classroom expectations.” Students are encouraged by this drill to sit close to the front, where they can see; pay attention instead of chatting; arrive to class on time; and come prepared.

What classroom icebreakers do you use to introduce yourself to your students?

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips Fourteenth Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning