Some people hate icebreakers – if you’re one of them, maybe pass on this post – but I’ve got one that I learned from my undergrad adviser* that I swear by. The central gist of it is that each student comes up with an animal that starts with the same sound as their name. For example, my name is Sam so I could go with Serpent, Salamander, Snuffleupagus, Socially Awkward Penguin … you get the picture**. Not everyone can think of their own animal, at which point you can invite the rest of the class to make suggestions that the undecided student can choose from.
“Icebreaker” kind of implies “activity designed to make people comfortable,” but without other goals that’s a waste of everyone’s time. In this case, however, the activity serves two more important functions:
- It’s a mnemonic device that helps me remember everyone’s name. I often can remember every student’s name after the very first class with this, but if I forget, I just ask them what their animal was and the sound prompt narrows the options enough that I can almost always get it. Since I highly value learning all my students names (and helping them learn each others’ names), this matters to me.
- Students can organize themselves into groups based off of similarities between their animals. It’s best if you can tie this to the course material somehow. For example, in the bioanth class I’m TAing, each group had to identify itself based off of a shared “morphological, physiological, or behavioral trait,” which got them using new course terminology. I’m a big believer in small group work, so it takes care of that for me, but for students it gets them actively participating in course content in a low pressure situation and thus doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.
The activity takes about 30 minutes (including group formation) for a class of 25.
* The amazing Kirk Ormand, whose awesomeness cannot be summed up in a footnote.
** Oddly, however, it is not uncommon for at least one student NOT to get it. Halfway through the class, I’ll get someone who announces they are “Doug the Horse.” But it’s pretty easy to redirect this without shaming the student.