by Althea Need Kaminske
As school is starting this fall, teachers and students are participating in a time honored first day of class ritual: the awkward icebreaker. While students might think they’re a bit cheesy, icebreakers serve several very important roles in class and are an excellent way to start a class.
An obvious reason to use icebreakers is to help the teacher get to know the students and to help the students get to know each other. It’s questionable how much anyone remembers from the first day icebreakers, but that’s not the point. I usually go around the room and ask students to tell me their name, their major, and one piece of media they really got into over the break and would recommend (a TV show or a movie they watched, a book they read, etc.). While I don’t remember every detail from those initial interactions, it does open the door for some simple conversations and basic rapport building. It also gives me a sense of the personalities in the class. Were all of the students eager to share their experiences or were they more reserved and needed more coaxing to talk about what they were interested in?
Even if the icebreaker doesn’t necessarily lead to any profound insights or immediate bonding, it serves another very important function: low-stakes participation that will help with retrieval practice later on. Once students are more comfortable talking in class, it makes it easier to get participation on course-related questions. While I like to use frequent quizzes as retrieval practice to improve students’ memory (1), asking questions throughout the lecture is a much faster way of getting feedback about students’ understanding and giving them some retrieval practice. When I ask students to share something about themselves in the icebreaker I do my best to make a positive comment about each of the things they shared so that participation is immediately rewarded, hopefully setting the tone for how I want participation to follow for the rest of the semester. Talking in front of groups can be intimidating, even more so if you are afraid of getting an answer wrong and looking silly or stupid in front of people. Icebreakers work because there is no wrong answer, removing at least one layer of potential anxiety about participating and lowering the stakes.