Icebreakers That Don’t Suck

In previous posts (1, 2) about the first day of class, I argue that icebreakers can be so much more than obligatory traditions that make us cringe.  They don’t simply introduce students to students and students to instructor.  Rather, they set the tone for the rest of the semester.  Are you willing to do something silly or fun with your students the first day?  Or do you consciously try to be uptight, intimidating, or boring to get students to drop your class?  Well, for the students who don’t drop, that first day has created a strong impression about what the next 14 weeks will be like.  So I encourage you to find an icebreaker that will get students talking and laughing and will establish a classroom culture of openness, sincerity, and good old fashioned fun.

Here are my favorite icebreakers:

Show and Tell.  For this icebreaker, I ask students to find an object on their person (in their pocket, purse, backpack, etc.) that they think no one else in the room has.  We then push the desks away and form a big circle.  Next, we go around the room showing our objects and telling the story of the object.  You may ask, “how could the stuff students keep with them have actual stories?”  Trust me, they do and they are usually either heart-warming or hilarious.  It’s amazing the random things we keep with us, from key chains to ticket stubs to Costco-sized jars of peanut butter (I really did have a student carry that around in her backpack).  Once we’ve all gone around the circle, I surprise them with the next step: pick someone and tell us their name and their object.  My students really enjoy this activity because it’s different than the typical “say your name, where you’re from, and a fun fact” icebreaker.  The objects they share are often a reflection of their personality, so we learn much more about one another.

First Day of Class Icebreakers Speed Dating

Image courtesy of Jesse Chan-Norris via Flickr

Speed Dating.  Before the students arrive, I line the desks up into two rows, each desk facing another.  When the students show up, they are immediately perplexed and curious.  The beauty of this activity is that it shakes them out of the usual first day routine — they’re not expecting to have the desks arranged this way or to be sitting directly across from someone they don’t know.  I find this arrangement makes it less likely they will stare at their cell phones because it seems more obviously rude to do so when a person is sitting across from you.  This encourages them to introduce themselves before the class even begins.  Once everyone is seated, I display a timer on the projection screen and tell them they have two minutes to identify two things they have in common with the person seated across from them (and it must be something other than hair color, for example).  When the timer buzzes, one row remains stationary while the other row moves one seat to the right and the process starts again.  There’s nothing earth-shattering about this icebreaker, but it creates a cacophony of laughter and conversation in the room.  And I like a little bit of chaos on the first day!

Twitter Scavenger Hunt.  Like a traditional scavenger hunt, tasks require students to run all over campus, taking photos, and searching the Web for answers to questions.  But my hunt requires they also use Twitter features, such as posting photos, using hashtags, and retweeting.  This not only teaches them a tool we’ll be using in class, but also allows them to be silly and learn more about their College.  I provide detailed instructions for facilitating a Twitter scavenger hunt in this post. Check it out!

What are your favorite icebreakers?  I’m always looking for new ones!


About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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6 Responses to Icebreakers That Don’t Suck

  1. Anthony Wade says:

    I love these ideas! I just recently decided to teach English in China, and since then, I’ve been worrying about the most random things like what to do on the first day of class. The Show and Tell is so much better than 2 Truths and a Lie. Thanks for the ideas!

    • pastprof says:

      Thank you so much Anthony! I had grown tired of two truths and a lie so one of my mentors in grad school taught me the “show and tell” icebreaker and I’ve used it ever since. Each semester, I truly am amazed at what students carry with them and the stories they tell about those objects. Best of luck in China! ~ Jessica

  2. Pingback: Take Your Students on a Twitter Scavenger Hunt | Past Prof

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  4. Pingback: Is Your First Day of Class “Syllabus Day”? | Past Prof

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