The first day of class can be full of anxiety for many college students, especially freshman, suddenly surrounded by strangers who they are supposed to be learning with for the rest of the semester. Cliques can quickly form of students who already know each other, or who have obviously similar interests based on appearances. In order to facilitate group learning in your classroom, consider using an icebreaker on the first day of class. Icebreakers can help get rid of back to school jitters, and can help prepare students for working in groups and teams throughout the semester.

Why build group learning?

Why is it important to establish a group environment for your college students from the first day of class? If you’re teaching from a large lecture hall, it may not seem like it matters for your class whether or not your students form relationships with each other. But in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14e, McKeachie explains, “There is a wealth of evidence that peer learning and teaching is extremely effective for a wide range of goals, content, and students of different levels and personalities…. [C]ooperative learning in biology courses resulted in higher-level student questioning.” (193)

Your students will depend on each other for study sessions and moral support. They will perform better if they can form groups that encourage and build their learning experiences. “Creating a learning community gives students a sense of security, study pals, and somebody to double-check with about assignments,” Cynde Gregory wrote in her essay “Love the One You’re With: Creating a Classroom Community” for Faculty Focus.

Using icebreakers

In Gregory’s essay, she described using a “speed dating” technique with a new class with a very diverse population, giving the students two minutes to find out all they could about each other before having to switch partners. Whether you use the speed dating format or group the students together in a different way, many social icebreakers can start by asking prompts that will create more conversation and help students explore similar interests that might not be obvious based on appearance. Some good conversation prompts could include:

  • What is the last book you read you couldn’t put down?
  • What is the last song you played on your mp3 player?
  • If you could travel anywhere, where would you like to go?
  • If you had to choose a motto for yourself, what would it be?

If you want to form groups early on, you can also do an icebreaker such as clipping a comic into separate panels and having each student draw a panel from a hat or bag. When the students match the panels together, they have found their team.

Physical icebreakers

If you are interested in an icebreaker to get through nerves and encourage silliness, you can use a more physical icebreaker, such as:

  • Having students take off one shoe and have each student take a shoe from the resulting pile. The students have to find the person with their match—as well as the person who finds their shoe.
  • Having two students of like heights link arms together, back to back, and sit down, then try to stand by relying on each other.
  • Playing a round of charades.

Any of these icebreakers—and many more possibilities—can reduce that back to school anxiety!

What icebreakers have you used in your classes?

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed.Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.