To maximize learning, brief yet powerful active learning strategies can be used. Using these brief activities can result in higher levels of student engagement with the material and one another, higher motivational levels, and can lead to an increased mastery of the material being learned. Prince (2004) recommends adding a brief interactive exercise into your lecture approximately every fifteen minutes, but why not start class with an activity?

At the start of every class, I ask students to participate in a “Dusting Off the Cobwebs” exercise. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Students need to partner up with another student. Note: I encourage students to find different partners each class so that they get to know more classmates.

Step 2: In pairs, they need to recall what they learned last class (or from reading assignments) without using their notes or book. They are given about 2 minutes for this task.

Step 3: Working with the same pair, they then open their notebook/book and discuss any content that they “forgot”. In essence, they are filling in the information gaps. They are given another 2 minutes for this step.

Step 4: Now it is time for a large group review. I randomly call on students to briefly share concepts discussed during the prior class or from the reading assignment. Randomly calling on students helps keep students on task during this activity. It also gives students who may not be frequent participators the opportunity to share their knowledge and ideas with the class. It is not my style to typically call on students randomly because I know that some students require more processing time than others; however, this activity builds in this processing time. It even allows the students to “test drive” their answer with a classmate before having to share it with the large group. This is particularly helpful to students who may be concerned that their answer is incorrect. We typically review approximately 5 main topics from the prior lesson. This step takes approximately 3-5 minutes (sometimes more), depending on the complexity of the concepts and the level of understanding.

This activity puts the findings of Karpicke and Roediger (2006) into practice. They found that students who practice retrieving information learn more than those who do not engage in this task. While we typically think of the “quiz” as the main retrieval tool, brief class activities such as this one can also serve this purpose. This technique is also consistent with the fact that learning is incremental (Goswami, 2008). Activating prior knowledge in a content area will increase the likelihood that the new information will “stick” or be retained.

In summary, this “Dusting off the Cobwebs” exercise gets students engaged right at the start of class, facilitates retrieval practice to improve memory, and activates the prior knowledge to increase learning of new content. It is an active learning technique that gets everyone engaged and increases participation levels of all students. It also serves as a formative assessment tool to assess how well students are grasping the concepts being discussed. If students do not understand concepts, you can review material before addressing the new content in the upcoming lesson. It is a powerful way to begin a class!


Goswami, U. (2008). Principles of learning, implications for teaching: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3/4), 381-399. doi:10.1111/j.14679752.2008.00639.x

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education. 93(3), 223-231.

Roediger III H, Karpicke J. The power of testing memory basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell) [serial online]. September 2006;1(3):181-210. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 27, 2013.

Dr. Christine Harrington is a Professor of Psychology and Student Success and Director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ. She is also the author of a new research-based freshman seminar textbook, Student Success in College: Doing What Works! Prior to teaching full time, she worked in the Counseling and Career Services Department, providing disability services and career, academic, and personal counseling. You can also visit Dr. Christine Harrington’s website.

Do you have an effective icebreaker activity that you’d like to share with your colleagues? Share your ideas in the comments, and we may feature them in a future post!