Teaching The Teaching Workshop: Icebreakers

The Teaching Workshop: Icebreakers

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Question: What makes for a non-cheesy icebreaker appropriate for graduate students? For undergraduates?


From David W. Concepción

It just might be that “non-cheesy icebreaker” is an oxymoron. What most people might think of as an ice-breaker is a one-off activity that is unlike the norms regularly used. Meet-and-greet bingo activities such as “Find a person who has a pet” are utterly unlike how we actually want philosophy students to interact. And, the performative aspiration of such “icebreakers,” such as getting students comfortable with sharing, can be achieved equally well with experiences that simultaneously begin establishing the patterns of behavior we do want. True icebreakers, then, increase the comfort people have in a setting that demands specific types of interpersonal interaction.

Consider an example. In my junior/senior seminar on meta-ethics and ethical theory, the final exam essay question is: Which combination of meta-ethics, moral psychology, and ethical theory is best? Part of how I help students prepare to answer this question is by having them try out provisional ideas orally in class, receive feedback, and refine their view as necessary. Students need to practice stating their view, while providing public reasons for why others should agree with them. Everyone must abide general norms of civility, but what students need in particular is an environment where sharing a belief and a rationale is met by others who offer constructive criticism in a loving manner. So, the ice breaker I need is something that will begin establishing this particular conversational norm.

On the first day of class I ask the students questions that they will later realize are malformed, but which seem immediately answerable. Do you think there are ethics? If so, who made them? If not, what do you make of the fact that people say “should” all the time? Does the existence of norms influence people’s behavior? Necessarily? What would you do if you had to break a really important and generally good rule to make sure the thing that is best for everyone happens? When students answer, I ask them to say why they think what they think. I then ask other students whether they agree. And I ask them why they agree or disagree. If someone grandstands, I shut him down. I also bring quieter students into the conversation. My goal is to establish a culture where collectively we practice and praise loving criticism. I hope to have each person offer a view, rationale, and criticism, and I hope that each person receives a criticism and responds. It is worth stressing that while we are double-dipping, using course material as the content of the ice-breaker, the purpose of the conversation is not content mastery but the construction of productive interpersonal interactions. How they talk, not what particular thing they say, is what matters on the first day.

In short, don’t merely break the ice. Rather, begin purposefully building the specific culture that your students will need to achieve your learning goals.

From Michelle Saint:

I decided to ask current grad students what they think about icebreakers–see what this youngest generation of academic philosophers thinks about the matter. What I got in response was unsurprising: “I hate icebreakers.” I think it’s worth focusing on why icebreakers are disliked, before deciding on what specific icebreaker(s) to use.

There were a number of criticisms: icebreakers are awkward and boring; they’re pointless; they take up too much time; they’re cheesy. I suspect most of us, when we were grad students, would have made similar complaints.

Of course, student feedback, whether actual or built from our recollections, should be taken with a grain of salt. Students often have a warped perception of pedagogy. There is good reason to use icebreakers, even if students aren’t always best positioned to realize it. We shouldn’t respond to this hatred by getting rid of icebreakers, but instead we should use the content of these complaints to shape how we use icebreakers when we do:

  • Students say icebreakers are boring. The problem is the kind of icebreaker being used: if you ask a boring question, you’ll get a boring answer. The most basic icebreaker is this: “Let’s all say something about ourselves.” But, in a room of grad students,what is each person going to say? “I’m a grad student, this is my Xth year.” Yawn. So, what’s the remedy? Give direction and be specific. One icebreaker that got praise from a grad student was this: “Tell a secret about yourself.” It was fun, and the secrets told were memorable.
  • Students say icebreakers are a waste of time. The problem, here, is that students don’t know what the purpose of a good icebreaker is. So, make it clear why the icebreaking activity is a good use of time. This would be a good opportunity to keep in mind that most grad students will go on to be instructors themselves: you can introduce the icebreaker by explaining why it is an important pedagogical tool, why you use it while teaching, and why they probably will want to use them once they begin teaching as well.
  • Students say icebreakers are cheesy and awkward. The problem, here, is how the icebreaker is presented to them. This is a good time to remember that most of us probably agreed with these grad students when we were in their position: there’s a good chance you hated icebreakers when you were a student, and there’s a good chance you still do. But if you’re including an icebreaker when you really would rather not, the students will pick up your attitude and emulate it. A pro forma icebreaker really is an awkward waste of time. So, don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Choose an icebreaking activity that you actually care about. Only ask each student to provide some information if that is information you actually want to know. Only encourage students to interact with each other in a given way if you think that sort of interaction is important.

With all that said, now it would be great to get to specific ideas and suggestions! Readers, what can you recommend? What has worked for you?

Additional Resources:

Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.



  1. I am reminded of my first class in graduate philosophy on GE Moore with Tim Sprigge (1968). With a class of about ten students he said we will have time to talk about Moore, but I would like us all to go around and tell something about yourself, such as what is your view on nominalism.


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