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An ice breaker activity at the beginning of a class can accomplish several goals including 1) collecting useful information, 2) creating an inclusive and engaged classroom environment, and 3) allowing students to get to know one another. Here are some examples, but there many more and you can create your own or modify the ones below.
Divide students randomly into pairs and give each person an interview form. The form could have some basic information questions (e.g., name, home town, etc.), one or two personal questions (e.g., favorite hobby), and maybe one item the person wants to share with the group that is not on the form. The people take turns interviewing each other and filling out the sheet. Participants then take no more than one minute each to introduce the person they spoke to.
Human Scavenger Hunt
Each student is given a sheet of paper that has a 5 by 5 grid on it. The size of the grid could be larger or smaller depending on time and the number of students. In each cell of the grid there is a short descriptive statement such as: has two or more siblings, speaks more than one language, can play a musical instrument, was born the same month as you, has lived outside the country for six months or more, etc. Be creative, but not too much because the object of the ice breaker is to move around the room and find someone who satisfies that description. That student then initials the cell. Each student can be used only once. After a specified time period, find out who has the most initialed cells. That student could win a prize.
Object as Metaphor
Provide a range of objects at the front of the room such as a hammer, a map, a puzzle, a flower, seeds, a sponge, a candle, etc. Next to each object place a Post-it Note pad. Students choose an object that they identify with in some way, take a Post-it Note, and write the name of the object on it and why they chose it. The notes could then be posted on the wall and students could walk around the room and read the results. Identical metaphors could be clustered to see different ways a candle might be significant to someone. An alternative strategy is for individuals to report out and share what they wrote.
Familiar and Unique
Divide participants randomly into groups of four. Each group must come up with three things they share in common. Plus, each group member must find one item that is unique to him or her. Groups then report out their shared and unique items.
Ask students a few questions related to the course content. These could be true/false, multiple choice, or open-ended questions. Ideally, the answers to the questions should not be obvious, but rather something that there may be disagreement over. Participants first answer the questions individually and then join a group of 4-6 to discuss their answers and reach consensus. The questions are then discussed to see how many groups agree and how much disagreement occurred within each group.
Students draw a large circle on a sheet of paper and 3-5 smaller circles radiating from it. They write their name in the large circle and the names of groups they identify with in the smaller circles. These groups could relate to gender, age, ethnicity, hobby, or any number of other groups. Students then move around the room to find 2 or 3 others who are most and/or least like themselves. This is a good activity for demonstrating the diversity of a group.
Students are put into groups of 4-6 and are told they are marooned on an island. They are asked what three items the group (not each individual) would have brought if they knew that they might be stranded. The group must reach consensus and report out to the rest of the class what they chose and why.
Two True, One False
Put students into groups of 3-4. Each student takes a turn and makes three statements about him/herself. Two of the statements should be true and one false. The rest of the group has to guess which one is false.
Common Sense Inventory
Write 3-5 "common sense" statements or common misconceptions directly related to the course content that may or may not be true. For example, some science examples might be, "seasons are caused by the distance of the Earth from the Sun or "the phases of the Moon are caused by the Earth's shadow." Individually, have students mark each statement as true or false and then share their answers in small groups. Allow students to debate their differences. Instruct the groups to reach a consensus and have a presenter from each group share their response to at least one question. Either provide the correct answers at the end of the exercise or take the cliffhanger approach and let the students wait for the correct answers to unfold throughout the semester.
Power, Job, Prop
Considering the ideal practitioner of the discipline at hand (e.g., writer, historian, musician, engineer, scientist, nurse), students must imagine one (super)power, one former job that has nothing to do with the subject of the class, and one prop or object that the person would have at hand at all times. Responses may be as practical or as imaginative as students desire. Afterwards, students may share out orally or use poll/survey software such as Poll Everywhere and Google Forms. Ideally, the responses, however silly, provide an entry into a conversation about the course topic.