By Garth Neufeld, Psychology Faculty, Cascadia College
First Thing’s First
After 15 years in the classroom, I have some thoughts about ice-breaker activities:
I do not like them.
Students do not like them.
Why? Because they are usually superficial while simultaneously forcing us all out of our comfort zones and perhaps even asking questions that we either don’t want to answer publicly or don’t know the answers to. And so, it turns out that the social risk is high and the social reward is low. Additionally, too often the person leading the activity has not thought through the point of the activity and how it fits into the course. “Welcome to class, now pair up with a stranger and share about your life,” is not a great setup for a meaningful activity.
Here’s an icebreaker rule I subscribe to: if I’m bored, then my student are twice as bored. And going around the room talking about what you are studying or what you ate for dinner last night is boring. No one cares. In some ways, I think a bad icebreaker leaves the impression that the course will be unengaging and unimportant.
Still, the ice-breaker is widely used because it is important. Spending all of our time on the first day of class merely reading through the syllabus, or worse, dismissing students early with no meaningful learning experience or connection to the course, is a missed opportunity. So, it is my opinion that we should be looking for high quality ice-breakers that check many of the boxes that we hope to accomplish on the first day of class.
The Speed Dating Ice-Breaker
This activity seems to work for me and my students are surprised by how much fun they have at it. As we do this activity on the first day of class, I invite them to “trust me” even they don’t know me. A couple of things that this activity has going for it is that it is fast-paced and it touches on things that students are genuinely interested in and can easily share. It also reminds students that they are interesting and have something valuable to contribute!
To set this up, I have my 30-ish students get into pairs and stand across from one another in two lines of 15. Then, I give each student a piece of paper with a question on it. I choose one line of students to ask their question first – they will also be the students who will be moving between questions. This line of students asks their partner their question. For example, “if you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live and why?” The partner then answers until 30 seconds is up and you, the teacher, says, “switch.” Now the other partner asks her question. Thirty seconds later, you call out “rotate,” and the one student line takes a step down to the next person, while the person at the very end of the line rotates to the beginning. This goes on again, and again, until all 15 students have engaged with 15 other students.
After the activity is over, we have a class-wide conversation (sometimes small groups first) about what kinds of things we learned through the activity. You can ask any questions here, like, “did anyone get a really interesting answer to a question they asked?” I will also lead a conversation about what kinds of skills students displayed in the activity. Then, I talk about the relevance of those skills to this particular course and to learning in general. I also encourage students to follow up with others who they found to be interesting! Finally, in a “lightning round,” I allow students to ask me any of the questions that they were asking each other. This proves to be a great way for them to get to know me.
Here are some sample questions. Some I stole and some I wrote, though I can’t remember which are which. Feel free to write your own questions and to be creative. But, keep in mind the diversity of your student body and avoid any questions that can obviously make students feel uncomfortable. Remember, our questions can quickly become biased to our particular worldview or assumptions. (Someday, I might have students create and submit their own questions to use for speed dating.)
What is your favorite thing to do around town?
Are you more of a morning person or a night person?
If you could visit any place in this world, where would you go and why?
What is something you're passionate about?
What is something you’re most knowledgeable about?
What is something good that happened to you today?
What show or shows do you watch religiously?
What is something you wish you could change in today's world?
Can you tell me some things about your family?
What are some little things that bring happiness into your everyday life?
What do you do for a typical night out with your friends?
Where did you grow up? What was it like?
Which animated character should portray you in a documentary about your life?
What was an embarrassing moment of your life?
What is your most random, silly childhood memory?
Do you break any traffic rules if there is no cop around? Which ones?
We’re at a restaurant and you find a hair in your food, how do you react?
What is one thing that you absolutely cannot stand?
If you were any superhero, who would you be?
Garth Neufeld teaches at Cascadia College in Washington State. He is the founder of Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest, the co-founder of the PsychSessions podcast, and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Shared Space For All, for which he received an APA Citizen Psychologist Presidential Citation. Garth is the co-chair of APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative and the recipient of the 2019 STP Wayne Weiten Teaching Excellence Award.