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Most profs do some type of ice breaking exercise to remove the tension to get students talking to each other. Over the years, I've developed the one below that is based on tips I got from great teachers over the years.
I call this the business card interview ice breaker. Here's how it works.
After I go through the syllabus and discuss the main themes of the course (this gives time for stragglers to come in who are having trouble finding the room or parking), I hand out my business card and tell them that I do this so they will always have my contact information.
However, prior to coming to class, I write numbers on the back of each card. If there are 30 students, I write 1-15 on the back of two sets of 15 cards. Then, I shuffle the cards so that the numbers are mixed when they are passed out in class.
I then explain to the students that there are numbers on the back of the cards and that they have to find a student with a card with the same number. They usually start out tentatively, but after a while they have some fun with it.
Once they find their partner, I tell them that they have to interview their partner to get answers to certain questions. They then will introduce their partner to the rest of the class.
I usually use the following questions:
1. Name (this helps me as an instructor learn their names since it will be the second time I heard it in class--the first time being during attendance).
2. Year in school and major. I am always on the lookout for undeclared majors who may be interested in sustainability as a major.
3. What is the last book you read? I love this question because it reinforces the intellectual nature of university life and you get a sense of the interests of your students.
4. Why did you take this class? For many students, the course is some type of requirement. For others, they are deeply interested in the topic. Again, this helps to get a sense of the interests of the students.
5. Please tell me something interesting about yourself. This is also an interesting question because it gets students out of their walled comfort zone. They reveal who they are in interesting ways.
Before getting them started on the interviews, I go through the questions myself and answer them so that the students can get to know me a little better and so they have a model of types of answers I expect.
When the students are doing introductions, I usually ask follow up questions with each student. For example, if a student states that they are on a sports team, I ask them how their season is going or where they played last. These conversations further soften the first classroom experience.
Introducing the syllabus and the ice breaker exercise usually takes the entire first class period. I find it entirely worth it. When students come back the second day, they are relaxed and they know each other. They are talking with each other and they are comfortable enough to ask questions during the second meeting. It makes doing some higher risk classroom exercises (such as student mini lectures) much easier.
What ice breaking exercises do you use?