As the first week of class draws nigh, instructors naturally turn their thoughts to those first moments that form a new community. These initial interactions offer instructors and learners an opportunity to set the tone for learning for the semester. We searched our library and reached out to UW-Green Bay faculty who have presented on their methods for building community and transparency in the first week to share their insights once again. Many thanks to Dr. Jenell Holstead for inspiring our objectives for the first day, and to Drs. Katia Levintova and Carly Kibbe for example icebreakers for building community in large lecture courses.
What are the objectives for the first day:
- Clarify all reasonable questions students might have about the course (course objectives, assignments, pre-requisites, when you’ll provide feedback, and how and when students should seek help); spotlight important parts of your syllabus and consider asking students to annotate the syllabus either before class or while you’re all meeting for the first time. Suggestions for how to do this are below.
- Build community and set the tone for the course environment with an introductory activity. Whether you’re teaching online or face-to-face, students are more likely to succeed when they have a greater sense of belonging not only to each other but also to the course design.
- Convince students of your competence to teach the course, predict the nature of your instruction, and know what is required of them (your expectations about performance in class). When appropriate, consider asking students to generate a class charter for participation so that they have a stake in shaping how and when they will be prepared to come to class. Giving your students some agency encourages them to hold themselves and their peers accountable for their preparedness.
- Give you an understanding of who is taking your course and what their expectations are and whatever you plan to do during the semester, do it on the first day. Some instructors ask students to do some “predicting” on the first day of class in order to gauge their expectations and learning goals. Suggestions for how to accomplish this are here.
Examples of Ice Breaker Activities
- Sharing Course Trepidations.* Some students have high anxiety about beginning a new course, especially in some courses, such as math or writing, which may be associated with high student anxiety and expectations. Have your students pair up or work in groups to share some of their fears and concerns about starting your course. Groups can share with the larger class if they feel comfortable; this provides validation for the students and an opportunity for the instructor to address student concerns.
- Simple Self-Introductions.* Have students introduce themselves to the rest of the class, including their names, majors, and year in school. You can even have them include a “fun fact” about themselves. This also may help you remember them a little bit better. This is a particularly useful exercise in a course where student speaking, in the form of speeches, oral presentations, or regular discussions, are expected.
- Getting to Know Each Other through Writing.* Instead of asking students to interview one another verbally, have your students write down the information that is traditionally shared in an introduction. Students can write their names, majors, reasons for enrolling in your course, “fun facts” about themselves, etc. Have your students swap papers with one another and learn about their partners without speaking. This is especially useful in a writing-intensive course.
- The M&M Icebreaker. Each student should be given an M&M (or a Lifesaver, or other multicolored candy). They can be given this piece of candy either as they walk in to the room or while they are already sitting in their seats. Develop a few questions or ideas about what students can share with the rest of the class. Then ask the students to introduce themselves to either a small group of other students or to the whole class, depending on the size of your course. When they introduce themselves, what they share or say is dependent on the color of their piece of candy. For example, a red one might mean they share why they decided to take the course or what they did over the school break.
- Syllabus Icebreaker.* Before distributing syllabi, have students get into small groups (3-5 students depending on the size of your course) and introduce themselves to one another. In their groups, students write a list of questions they have about the class. After their questions are written down, hand out the syllabus and have the students find answers to their questions using the syllabus. This is not only an icebreaker, but can also show students that many of their questions can be answered by reading the syllabus. Afterward, the class “debriefs” as a large group and discusses any questions that were not answered in the syllabus.
- Syllabus Jigsaw.* Divide your syllabus into a few major sections. Have your students get into groups and distribute one major section to each group (for example, Group A gets “homework assignments”). Each group studies the section of the syllabus until they are confident about the information in it; groups then present that section of the syllabus to the rest of the class.
- Common Sense Inventory.* Make a list of true or false statements pertaining to content in your course (for example, in a Biology course, one might read, “Evolution is simply change over time”). Have students get into groups and decide whether each statement is true or false. As a large group, “debrief” by going over the answers and clarifying misconceptions.
- Anonymous Classroom Survey.* Write 2 or 3 open-ended questions pertaining to course content. Consider including at least one question that most students will be able to answer and at least one question that students will find challenging. Have your students respond anonymously on note cards; collect the answers to get a general sense of your students’ starting point.
- Choose your Thread:* ask students to read the poem “The Way It Is” by William Stafford, and reflect on what their “thread” is and how it sustains them.
- Draw* a picture or create a PowerPoint Slide where students can express why they are taking the class.
- Bingo: Make a 5×5 grid to use as a Bingo sheet. In each box, write a “fun fact,” or something that at least one of your students will probably relate to. Some examples might be: has traveled to Europe; plays a sport; is left-handed, but they can also be related to your discipline. Have your students walk around and talk to others until they find matches; the first to find all of them “wins.”
- Shoes Activity: This activity comes from Dr. Katia Levintova, which she uses in a large lecture class to develop community on the first day. Take a look to see how students’ shoes, a few minutes of silence, and shuffling groups helps her to do this.
(* = suitable for Online or Face-to-Face environments)
Why do an Ice Breaker?
Research around the first weeks of a course indicates that it is not just content expertise that matters to student experience and learning: it is also the environment that the instructor creates–ideally engaging students as active participants (Deluse, 310-312). First impressions are important—from the first time you greet your students to the built or virtual environments in which you teach. Sara Rose Cavanagh shows how students’ first impressions heavily influence their evaluation of courses at the end of the semester. (Cavanagh, 63)
Email CATL@uwgb.edu if you have an activity for the first week that you would like to share!
“!2 Icebreakers for the College Classroom” Center for Advancement of Teaching, Ohio State University
Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. First edition. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 1. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, 2016. [E-book requires UWGB login]
Deluse, Stephanie. “First Impressions: Using a Flexible First Day Activity to Enhance Student Learning and Classroom Management.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 30, no. 2 (2018): 308–21.
“First Day of Class – Design & Teach a Course.” Carnegie Mellon University. Teaching Excellence & Education Innovation – Eberly Center, 2019. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html.
“First Day of Class Guide.” Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching, 2010. https://wp0.vanderbilt.edu/cft/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/.
Holstead, Jenell. “Do’s and Don’ts for the First Day of Class.” Presentation Session presented at the Instructional Development Institute, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, January 17, 2018. https://blog.uwgb.edu/catl/files/2018/01/DosDonts.pdf.
Jaggars, Shanna Smith, and Di Xu. “How Do Online Course Design Features Influence Student Performance?” Computers & Education 95 (April 2016): 270–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.01.014.
Kibbe, Carly, and Katia Levintova. “Building Community in Large Lecture Classes.” University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, January 28, 2018.
Samudra, Preeti G., Inah Min, Kai S. Cortina, and Kevin F. Miller. “No Second Chance to Make a First Impression: The ‘Thin‐Slice’ Effect on Instructor Ratings and Learning Outcomes in Higher Education.” Journal of Educational Measurement 53, no. 3 (2016): 313–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/jedm.12116.