The start of the semester can be overwhelming for professors, who are putting the final touches on syllabi and making sure everything is ready to go, and for students, who are being bombarded with information on all sides. As many students are still in the process of deciding what courses they’ll take, the first class session is a key opportunity to let them in on both what you’ll cover in the course and who you are as a professor.
Classroom icebreakers, despite their cheesy reputation, can be a helpful tool to do more than just mitigate awkwardness. They are a starting point for building meaningful relationships between you and your students, and even if the final headcount is in flux you can still start building community in the classroom.
Approach breaking the ice with the same energy and focus you bring to crafting a syllabus—set an intention for your first class session that goes beyond reviewing what materials your course will cover. Here are some strategies and tools to make the most of that first day.
Lay the groundwork
Don’t think of classroom icebreakers as devices that stand alone or apart from the broader pedagogical work you’ll be doing in the course all semester. Embrace them as a part of this work and of the vision you lay out for your course. In fact, giving your students a real opportunity to get to know you and each other can happen through intentional engagement with the course material.
Ask your students to think on the first day about not just what you’ll be covering in the semester but also why they’re in the classroom in the first place.
One way you can do this is to have them fill out an introductory survey before the first session that only you see, which includes letting you know their name (especially if it is a different name than the one listed with the campus registrar), pronouns, if they think they might need disability accommodations, or any assignments or sections they think might be difficult for them. Having this information before the first class means you can be sure to call them by their correct name (the name they prefer), use their correct pronouns (the ones they prefer), and know a bit about them before you all get started.
Especially if you are teaching progressive, creative, social-justice oriented topics, modeling community building as a critical part of learning can be transformative.
Don’t be afraid to use humor
Depending on your style and the nature of the course, bringing humor into the mix can be a good way to begin to foster one of the most important elements of a strong community: trust.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be cracking jokes (unless the moment takes you there) but that you judge whether some levity and informality is called for. Your students bring their whole selves to the class—meet them where they are.
Introduce yourself to them
Keep trust in mind when you introduce yourself. Don’t just give your CV highlights; share who you are, what drove you to teach this course, what units you are most excited about, and even highlights from previous years.
This honesty gives your students a real opportunity to learn about (and buy into) the unique classroom space you’ll be building together.
Let them tell you why they’re really there
Part of meeting your students where they are involves allowing them to honestly share why they’ve come to the classroom. Alongside asking them to share their name, you might consider asking them to share what brought them to the course—even if that reason is that it’s a requirement.
Be explicit that it’s okay to answer honestly and that you won’t judge them for what they share.
If you’ve been teaching the same course for several years, learning the reasons behind why students are registering is also a helpful barometer of what is (or perhaps isn’t) resonating.
What do they hope to get out of the semester?
Alongside asking your students why they joined your course, help them begin to set an intention for their time there. Ask your students what they hope to get out of the semester, and do so in a way that does more than prompt vague answers. Help them get specific about what they are interested in, looking for, and hoping to achieve.
Try asking about the one thing they’d love for you to talk about, explore, cover, or address together before the semester is out.
Giving them the opportunity to tell you what they’re looking for lets you know them a little better, and may even help you shape later sessions, units, or discussions as the semester progresses.
Small group activities
Perhaps the most tried and true advice for breaking the ice with your students is planning a small group activity on your first day. Whatever activity you design, approach it as both an intellectual exercise and an opportunity to get students engaged with each other and you.
Equally important is to leave ample time for both the activity itself, and a collective debriefing afterwards. Don’t rush this part—it is your first opportunity to model the kind of discussions you want to have for the rest of your time together.