Building a Learning Community in Your Classroom
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
professors 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
- 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
- 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.
- This activity asks students
what specific problems or challenges they are having. During the first
class you might ask, "Lets see what problems youre
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.
feedback will allow all students to participate that first day as
much as they wish, especially those who tend to be shy and reserved.
- 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 professors 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.
- 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.