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Building a Learning Community in Your Classroom

Ice Breakers 

Icebreakers are strategies that you can use to build a sense of community in your class and are often used as a first activity.  Here are a few examples of icebreakers to choose from.

  • Ask students in large lecture classes to list their feelings on the first day of school, put some of these responses on the board. Then ask them how they think the teacher feels on the first day. Put these responses in another column and compare the similarities. Then comment briefly on your feelings. Some faculty even have students guess about the professor’s life, background, interests, etc. just based on their appearance and the subject matter. Allow the students to ask questions about you. The responses can lead to an interesting revolution on stereotypes and the actual biography of the teacher.
  • In smaller classes a short self-introduction by each student in the class (major, hobbies, year in college, goals, etc.) is also an effective ice breaker. Some faculty have a student give this introduction to another student who then in turn introduces them to the rest of the class. Each student repeating the names of already introduced students is a good way for the students to learn their classmates’ names.
  • Lee Jones from the University of Mississippi, MI introduces his students to the text on the first day by having them find an essential word in the first chapter and count the number of times that it is used. He points out the power of repetition in the learning process and introduces them to the importance of action on their part in that learning process. This exercise introduces students to essential concepts in the course and gets them into the text right away.

Getting to Know Your Students

  • The dialogue between you and the student is one of the best assessments of how well you are succeeding in stimulating learning and true understanding of the subject matter. This dialogue also begins the process of establishing the strongest motivator for every student (viz. an instructor who knows who s/he is and cares about how they are doing).
  • Freshman students indicate that the single most important key to their success and satisfaction with college as a first year student is the positive relationship that they develop with their instructors. Students who attend a community college before transferring to a four-year school consistently sight the excellent quality of the education at the two-year school due in part to the smaller classes, but also to the personal attention they received from their professors.
  • Learn students’ names and as roll is called ask for students to correct the pronunciation of their name or give preference for first names. For smaller classes it helps to call students names for a few weeks. You may wish to have students sit in assigned seats for the beginning of course until you learn their names. Another strategy is to use the first test as a time to make notes on your roll sheet on students’ physical characteristics as they turn in their exams. Use the quiet class time to memorize their names. What really impresses the students is to go down the rows at the end of the exam and name the students by name. They appreciate the fact that the teacher has been studying their names while they are sweating over their exam and the teacher tests her/himself in front of the entire class.
  • Some faculty take photos of students and paste or attach it to their information card. With the use of a digital camera, a very nice biography listing of students (minus information protected by the federal privacy act) can be generated and shared with the entire class.
  • For seminar type classes consider using place cards in front of students until everyone knows the names of their classmates.
  • Give homework assignments in which students interview classmates and write a brief description of their partner.
  • Encourage students to voluntarily share phone numbers and/or email addresses to notify classmates about missed classes, homework assignments, and study group work.
  • Use information sheets or cards to learn about your students.  
    • Pass out file cards and ask students to write their names, college address, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, previous experience relevant to the course, year in school, interests, hobbies, major, work hours, or any other distinguishing characteristics.
    • In addition, the cards could also include what they hope to learn from the class and their tentative career plans.
    • The back of these cards can be used to record class discussion participation or points for answering questions correctly when called upon in class.
    • Be sure that late entrants into the class also fill out the information card.

Problem Posting 

  • This activity asks students what specific problems or challenges they are having. During the first class you might ask, "Let’s see what problems you’re likely to tackle during the course. What sorts of concerns do you think we might deal with?" or "What kinds of things have you heard about this course?" "What are your goals?"
  • You then act as a recorder on the board, overhead or computer. Restate and record what is said without prejudging the value of the input from students.
  • Allow time for pauses when students can reflect and see that you care enough to take care and time in identifying their issues and challenges.
  • Maintain a non-evaluative atmosphere that promotes entitlement to each thing listed.
  • Inevitably there should be a discussion in an atmosphere that promotes a partnership by students and faculty seeking mutual solutions.
  • This activity will promote participation and understanding rather than competing and will reduce the attitude that everything must come from the teacher. During this first class the students will see that the teacher can listen as well as talk and will not reject ideas different from his or her own. Ultimately, the goal is to give the students confidence that they can take responsibility for solving their own problems rather than relying so heavily on the instructor to "teach" them.

Assessing Prior Knowledge

  • Prior knowledge is the most important element in determining student learning in your class. That is the reason why it is critical to get a sense of the diversity of your students' backgrounds.
  • A quick survey on 3 X 5 information cards filled out earlier could list all background relevant to this course.
  • Some faculty give a Cloze test from their textbook to allow students to assess their reading level in relation to this textbook. Those students with particularly low scores can be counseled into a reading course to raise their reading comprehension level or can be advised to work closely with a tutor because they may need special assistance comprehending the material. Some faculty advise the option of dropping the class until this reading deficiency is improved.
  • Written feedback will allow all students to participate that first day as much as they wish, especially those who tend to be shy and reserved.

Board Technique

  • When possible place any material that can be written on the board in advance so that you can focus the lecture on the way information is delivered and students are engaged by your presentation. Talking to the board while you write is not as effective as facing the students and speaking to a broad cross-section of the class.
  • Do not put too much on board; utilize blank space or different colored markers on whiteboards in order to highlight important words or concepts.
  • Avoid clutter; erase or change boards fairly often to call attention to material of the moment. Do not forget to erase the board at the end of your class. It is very frustrating to have to spend several minutes erasing a previous professor’s white/black board before being able use it for your class.

When to answer questions

  • If a question can be answered directly after class, it is better to do it then while the issue is fresh and the student is available. Quite often these questions are about facts and can be quickly answered in class or directly thereafter.
  • A more open-ended discussion is better saved for the office hour. Beware of the student who spends too much time in the office hour and not enough time reading and self-reflecting. Sending them off to ponder a question and offer a written response will shift the learning to them and still allow them the feedback that they deserve, as well as avoid their monopolizing of office hours needed by other students as well. Use the office hour to check their study habits for your class and offer suggestions if needed.

Office Hours

  • Be sure that your office hours are clearly highlighted on the syllabus, and verbally welcome them to come to see you with any questions or problems they might encounter. Do what you can to dispel the myth that a visit to your office will automatically signal to you that they are incapable of doing well in the class.
  • Office hours are not only a time to clear up questions, but also an opportunity to clarify and discuss class material in greater depth. They give the teacher and student an opportunity to develop a relationship that emphasizes the partnership between the two as one learns from the other. Let the students know that you sometimes learn as much from their questions as they do from you.


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