By: Shawn Orr, Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence, Faculty in Communication Studies at Ashland University – Ohio

Icebreakers often come with a dreaded connotation that implies frivolous activities done on the first day of class with limited benefits to student learning. Consider that one icebreaker—”introduce yourself and tell us one interesting thing about yourself”—that is used over and over while yielding little enthusiasm or class engagement. Yet, semester after semester, we pull that icebreaker out and use it again. Why? Because we want to start the semester off by fostering student connection and community. This begs the question: how can we use icebreakers and topic starters in a more significant and impactful way to build community, introduce new topics, and encourage students to think critically and creatively about course content?

Sue Forbess-Green et al.—in her book, The Encyclopedia of Icebreakers: Structured Activities That Warm-up, Motivate, Challenge, Acquaint, and Energize—defines icebreakers as tools that make learning easier by “fostering interaction, stimulating creative thinking, challenging basic assumptions, illustrating new concepts, and introducing specific material” (p.1).  In my courses, I use icebreakers and topic starters in almost every class to help students build a classroom community (which positively affects retention) and to introduce curricular concepts that are new to them. I have hundreds of icebreakers in my “toolbox” (most of which I’ve borrowed and/or adapted from my colleagues) that have positively impacted my classroom and students.

My Three Favorite Icebreakers

1.) The Five Finger Introduction. This first-day icebreaker activity requires that you put students in dyads where they will share five things about themselves including: name and major (pointer finger), someone they look up to (middle finger), someone they love (ring finger), something they need to be “a-little more” or “a-little less” of (pinkie) and thumb-thing (ha ha) they love to do (thumb). After 10 minutes, students introduce their partner to the rest of the class, sharing only one or two interesting things they learned about their new friend. I appreciate this ice-breaker because students get to know one person with some depth (it’s a short step to have them then share contact information in case one of them misses class or has questions), but it also allows the entire class to get to know each other without the pressure of deciding what to share about yourself. I like to take this activity one step further and have students say the names of all the students that went before them before they introduce their partner. (You will not be the friend of the last person that ends up going last!) Not only does this help students learn each other’s names, it helps me learn all my students’ names by the end of the first day. Bonus!

2.) Treasure-hunting card split. This is a great icebreaker to use if you have many terms you will be covering in class that day. Begin by writing terms on one note card, and then on a separate note card, write the definition to the original term. If I have 30 students in class, I would have 15 terms and 15 definitions. As students enter the classroom, give them each a card and tell them they must find their match and then review the concept. When you get to the place in the lecture that you will be talking about that term, let the students know they will be expected to explain the concept—with a relevant example—to the class. Not only is this a great educational icebreaker, it also requires that students sit with someone new and build in-class social connections.

3.) Questia research tool. I use this icebreaker when I’m introducing a new concept with many possible applications. For this activity, I start class by introducing a new idea or theory, for example, Agenda Setting Theory. I put students in teams of three, then have them go into the Questia research database, an app inside their MindTap course, and enter “agenda setting theory” into the search box. I have them select a journal article about this concept from the 320 available, read the article (or overview if it is long) and be prepared to share with the class how the theory was incorporated into the article. Usually, I have just a few teams share, and students begin to see the depth of application for the theory. We then move on with the lecture, and it’s always surprising how many students will use content from the article they just read as they answer questions and engage for the rest of the class period.

I hope you learned a new idea or two and encourage you to also share your favorite icebreakers with me in the comments section of this community post—I’m always looking for new ideas!

Want to hear more from Shawn? Register for her upcoming webinar on The Empowered Educator Virtual Events website, where you will find additional, peer-driven resources addressing important topics in Higher Ed.

Interested in ideas from other Empowered Educators? Check out these posts on Becoming Culturally Responsive and Effective Assessments!