Getting to know you, late in the game

After our last class, one of my students came up to me after the class and wanted to offer some feedback. I have heard teachers complain about things like this, especially in the context of young-looking women being offered unsolicited teaching advice from men in their class. However, this student was respectful and framed the advice as the kind of advice he would like to get from his students (I guess he must be teaching a DeCal or something?). And most of his suggestions were actually pretty on the mark! (We are planning to do a midterm evaluation soon anyway to gather precisely this kind of feedback, so I guess Christmas just came early.)

His main focus was on the relationships between students in the class–namely that there really aren’t any. Between the shifting enrollments at the beginning of the semester, and the sheer size of the class, we never did any kind of generalized “ice-breaker.” We also haven’t explicitly encouraged the students to learn each other’s names. And, of course, there is the “ping-pong” structure of discussion that we have lamented in our Koshland conversations. This student was totally right to bring to our attention that we haven’t done enough fostering of in-class community, and we are planning to address it in our next section, but I wanted to see if anyone has any suggestions.

See, I think there are two reasons we haven’t done this. One, I’ve never come up with what seems like an actually useful “icebreaker” type exercise. So if anybody has a recommendation for something they’ve done with students, please let me know! And two, I don’t know how to do an icebreaker with almost 40 students that won’t take up the whole class. With 80 minutes of meeting time, if everybody talks for two minutes (which is kind of a long time, but with pauses and trying to think of a clever answer, etc., actually not totally unrealistic), that’s an entire class. If we had a truly substantive exercise that would in fact have the effect of fostering community and mutual interest/appreciation in the students, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a whole class on it–but I shudder to think of a full hour and twenty minutes spent with them each in a row saying their name, intended major, and favorite movie/animal/place/whatever. How do you make a group so big feel intimate, and do it in such a way that the 35th person to introduce themselves isn’t talking to a room full of sleeping peers?

Thanks everybody, and here’s hoping you have some fabulous ideas I can steal!!


Author: alex b.

I am a PhD Candidate in Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley. This is my teaching account, which I use to administer sites for my courses.

2 thoughts on “Getting to know you, late in the game”

  1. I just wanted to second Alex’s question — I’d love to hear about ice-breakers that have worked well for other people.

    I do have one suggestion that might be worth considering, given your time constraints. Recently in my class I gave students the option to change our syllabus slightly. After finishing the first essay, I realized that it might be in everyone’s best interest to have more time to work on the (longer) second essay. But in order to do that, it would be necessary to free up some space on the syllabus. So I asked my students if they would be open to changing the syllabus to read one less novel and spend more time writing a slightly longer paper. Some students loved the idea, others didn’t. So we had an impromptu campaign in class, debating both sides. Students who wanted to change the syllabus made the case for it directly to their classmates, and vice versa. Then we voted, and ultimately decided to change the syllabus.

    I hadn’t thought about this as an ice-breaker (or as something with pedagogical value), but in retrospect I think it actually ended up being good for the “vibe” of the class. Perhaps its because students were addressing one another directly, as peers whose opinions really mattered, but since then it has felt like everyone’s a bit more comfortable — people are referring to one another by name, and building off each others’ comments more freely. Also, sort of in the vein of the “class constitution” that Alex told us about, the vote gave students more of a direct stake in the class, because now the next writing project will be one that they chose more deliberately.

    So I don’t know how replicable that is in your class, but if there is a way to introduce some student-led decision-making, that might be a way to smuggle in something like an ice-breaker, without taking up a whole class session (in our case, I think all told this lasted maybe 20 minutes or so).

  2. Thanks Luke! This sounds fabulous and I will definitely keep it in mind, if not for this semester, then for the future. We ended up doing an icebreaker in groups that actually worked pretty well. We sorted them into groups randomly (had them count off), then told them they had 5 minutes to come up with a group name, find something they all had in common (which couldn’t be that they were in this class or go to berkeley, etc), learn each other’s names, and choose a representative who would introduce the group to the class. Then we went through all the group intros. It only took about 10 minutes total, and set a really nice tone.

    I liked using this question a lot–finding something they all had in common–because it forced them to ask questions about each other. And it was very efficient!

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